Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Specvent Calendar Day 25 - Grand Prix Simulator 2

Grand Prix Simulator 2 (Codemasters, 1989)

Grand Prix Simulator 2 was released in 1989 with little fanfare and to little notice, I could only find two reviews, Ace giving it 4/5 but SU complaining that the skiddiness of the cornering made it almost unplayable (actually they said it was umplayable, but there you go...) It is as you can see, at heart a Championship Sprint style game, of which the Spectrum had many, including several from the Codies (GPS 1 of course, and before that the BMX series.)

So, why is GPS2 my all-time favourite Spectrum game of all time? Because the skiddiness of the cornering makes it almost unplayable. Almost meaning not quite, and not quite being an invitation to keep improving, slowly, slowly, getting a little further each time until you can finish all 9 courses inside the time limit.

And it gives you split lap times. Somewhere in my dank archives I have graph paper charting my best times for each of the three laps for each course, the best time for each course, and the overall best time to that point. With the laps so short, knocking another tenth off was a real struggle of finding the perfect line through every bend allied to the perfect acceleration (never, never use the brake - if you need to, you've already lost.) As you progress, the courses get trickier, the tracks narrower and the time added for each course vanishingly small. If you don't have at least 34 seconds left at the end of track 1 you won't be seeing track 9 (bad news for me above...) You also take damage every time you hit the scenery or the CPU cars, gradually reducing your top speed and further reducing your qualification chances.

Significantly, though, GPS2 also has the "Meatboy" advantage, because at any time you can press Q then Space and you're instantly back on the start line of track 1, no muss, no fuss. Sounds like a small thing but it really promotes the competitive urge for the perfect start.

Chances are, even if you're a Speccy fan, you've probably never played GPS2, or you've had a quick bash and given it up as umplayable... but each track is short enough to fit a shedload of plays into an hour, by which time you'll learn which 270 degree bends you can take flat out and which you need to take the gas off for, which oil slicks to avoid and which you can compensate for, and the best way to gently block the CPU cars off at the first bend to give yourself a clean run at the track. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm away to set up an Excel spreadsheet and try to get beyond track 5...

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Specvent Calendar Day 24 - Quazatron

Quazatron (Hewson Consultants, 1986)

Ah, Quazatron. I'm rather drunk as I write this so it may need redoing later, but I don't want to break the unbroken chain this close to the end of the calendar. Suffice it to say that I spent most of this afternoon playing this again when I should have been tidying the house up ready for some event or other that's happening tomorrow. 

You play a robot, KLP2, tasked with subverting and destroying all of society, armed with nothing more than what you can steal from your betters. You can just shoot them, but you start with pretty much a peashooter, and the only way to get a better gun, or indeed better speed, power, strength, or sundries such as shields, is to switch to grapple mode, bump into a victim and outwit them in a battle of, erm, wits.

Almost always outgunned by your opponent, you have to ensure the balance of power tilts in your favour by zapping the colour bars in the middle of the screen, taking into account splitters, dividers, reinforcements and traitorous blobs. Picking the right side in a split second is three quarters of the battle, then you just have to carry out your nefarious plans. The more convincing your victory, the more parts you can steal - win by a single block and you'll probably find they're all burned out.

Without this part of the game, Quazatron would be a pretty simplistic run and shoot game; with it it becomes a strategic shooter par excellence. There are 32 different robot classes, from the lowly X9 up to AB and A1, and the lower you delve in the city the higher class you're likely to meet and die to. These robots provide 8 different drive units, 8 power units, 6 weapons, 8 chassis and 6 extras, leaving you to work your way up through the ranks, upgrading as you go, while keeping an eye out for ranks that bat above their pay grade - the humble X8 for example, which contains the Gravitonic Mk 2 drive unit that is found nowhere else in the bottom 12 ranks and isn't bettered outside of the top 12, or the midrange B6 unit which has an autocannon otherwise only found in the elite ranks.

Of course, everything you do takes energy, and if your power unit can't cope you'll soon suffer the same fate as if you'd lost a grapple, with all interfaced parts burning out and your defaults in dire need of a quick recharge or replacement before it's game over time. Energy pads will recharge you, but onyl sometimes (I never did work out quite why, although once you've cleared a floor it certainly pays to get out of Dodge as soon as you can.) Multi-level floors are shown on the map with a dividing line, forcing you to travel up or down and find another transport tube to mop up the remainder. Clear all floors and another city awaits - I think I did this once, back in the day; I certainly got nowhere near today. Simply immense.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Specvent Calendar Day 23 - Deathchase

Deathchase (Micromega, 1983)

So here is my third most treasured Spectrum game (again, apologies for the 25-day advent calendar, if it offends your sensibilities just drop the first game off the list and renumber accordingly - I think I've got a utility to do that in Sinclair BASIC...) and it's a final return to 1983 (the tenth time) and 16K (the fifth time.)

Ignore the inlay text, everyone knew your motorbike was actually a landspeeder, and those trees were in the forest of Endor. More importantly, everyone also knew that in a mere 16K of code, MJ Escourt had programmed the perfect twitch reaction game.  The aim is simple, after an initial blast of acceleration, just keep the fire button jammed down and steer left and right to hit the bikes while avoiding the trees - a fairly trivial operation on Level 1, even when day turns to night, but as you progress through the 16 levels (8 days and 8 nights) the tree density grows to the point where you're desperately speeding through avenues of solid wood just praying for a clearing. By this point you really do feel as though your hands are being guided by the Force rather than your brain as the action moves far too fast for conscious thought (or so it seemed...)

There is of course a sense in which you could argue that the game is simply Horace Goes Skiing 3D, but putting the game into first person perspective brings it to life, and again you can see in its simple but addictive gameplay the roots of many iThing endless runners. As for me, Deathchase holds the distinction of being the only game I ever bunked off school to play. Sort of... I may have slightly exaggerated an illness in order to have a day's uninterrupted Speccydom, but the original plan was to spend the day tackling The Hobbit. Until I realised a) how long the blessed scenery took to draw on each screen and b)how bad I was at text adventures. As it happened, I'd been given Deathchase at the same time, and it had just been named Game of the Month in the first issue of Crash... I didn't stop till I'd reached and conquered 8th Night (yes, it's a game I was better than average at - yippee!)

The only thing that bugged me was the scoring. The big points were for shooting the bikes and bonus tanks and helicopters that occasionally appeared on the horizon, but you also got points every moment you stayed alive. This meant that the longer you took to complete a level, the higher your score, bonuses being equal, and as your score went up at the same rate regardless of level, your best chance of a high score was to take as long as possible on Level 1. So for my own record keeping I devised a new system, based primarily on level reached, of course, but as a tiebreaker lowest score (and hence shortest time) would win. This did also mean that the bonus tanks and copters now counted against you rather than in your favour, but as this militated against just keeping the fire button held down it again added to the skill factor, as you now had to eliminate the enemy while avoiding friendly fire incidents...

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Specvent Calendar Day 22 - Sabre Wulf

Sabre Wulf (Ultimate, 1984)

Ah, that heady scent of inevitability - much as I like to dance to my own beat, no self-respecting Spectrum list would be complete without the game that set the ZX world alight in that heady summer of 1984 - both for gameplay and cost.

For this was the game that introduced the £9.95 price point to ZX gaming. Previously, while cartridge games and US computer games had been priced in the stratosphere (at least to us young teenagers) the Sinclair market had been steadily pegged at £5-6, with the odd £7.95 title raising eyebrows. Previous Ultimate games, from its 16K original series through to Atic Atac and Lunar Jetman, had all gone on sale for £5.50, and the hike to almost a tenner (around £25 at 2012 prices) did not pass without sniping from press and punters alike. Just as well the game was so damned good then.

As with Atic Atac, screens were static rather than scrolling, with Sabre Wulf taking place on a 16x16 screen grid on a single level, making it a simpler and more tractable game to map. 28 of these 256 screens formed single complete rooms, and four of these 28 contained the pieces of the sacred amulet needed to escape the jungle, causing great excitement and a very bad rhyme:

You start with five lives, and more are scattered around, which is just as well as the jungle is brutal. You do have a sword, but unless the sword touches the enemies before you do it's time for a sit down and a new life - no energy levels here, and the vertical passages especially are treacherous to navigate, as they're too narrow to pass anything without having a close encounter of the fatal kind. Then there are the five unkillable enemies... hippos like to sleep unless disturbed, but cannot normally be passed, while rhinos patrol corridors charging from one end to the other and back. Both can be repelled temporarily by your sabre, as can the pesky knights who wander randomly about the maze but do at least have the grace to flash you (... nah) when in line with a segment of the amulet (I've yet to be able to make use of this, but apparently it does help.) Not so the Sabre Wulf itself, which will pause for a second then pounce whether you're armed or not, though luckily this beast only patrols the snowy passageway at the South of the map. Finally, stay too long on  any screen and you will be consumed by fire...

Lucky then that the jungle also contains randomly flowering orchids, which when caught in bloom grant you temporary invulnerability, even letting you pass through those pesky mammals and knights. Like all good plant-derived products though, there are always side-effects, from slowing you down to speeding you up or reversing your movements, or even causing you to sit-down and meditate for a while...

Still my favourite 2D maze game, I don't think I got more than two pieces back then, and may have set my personal best today, with 2 pieces and 64% explored. I have in the meantime completed the game, but on a PC remake with 4 screens in view at any time, which much reduces the chance of being instakilled on entering a new screen.

Specvent Calendar Day 21 - Chuckie Egg

Chuckie Egg (A&F, 1984)

Another game no-one will be surprised to find here, when it cam to Spectrum platformers you could keep your Miner Willys and Technician Teds, Henhouse Harry was the boy for me! Rather than keying on pinpoint pixel perfect jumping, Chuckie Egg was all about a deadly combination of accuracy and speed. And chickens. Collect all the eggs before the timer runs out while avoiding said avians and the next screen would appear (no, really? Ed.)

Actually, the time limit was pretty generous, and only on the last couple of levels were you in any danger of timing out, but the bonus for finishing a level was based on speed and was generous enough to make it a priority, especially with a bonus life for every 10K score. Chicken feed also helped keep the bonus high by freezing the timer for a few seconds, though if the chickens found it first they would of course consume it... a simple game then, well-suited to the Spectrum despite the occasional colour clash. Apart from an annoying tendency to send Harry to his death when trying to jump on a moving platform the gameplay is faultless, and it rewards a bit of inside knowledge, not only by memorising the platform layouts but simply realising that, rather than meticulously positioning Harry at the bottom of a ladder to climb it you can just run into it while holding the up key down - or even jump straight into it. 

The difficulty was pitched perfectly, with a couple of easy screens followed by a couple of challenging ones, then difficult ones, then hellish ones. Complete all 8 levels and you're back to the start, sans pedestrian avians but with the mother hen let out of her cage to chase you round the screen. Even I managed to get this far a few times, though never to Level 17, where the walkers reappear alongside their mama...

Highly praised in reviews at the time, it still plays as well today as then. Shame about the sequel...

Friday, 21 December 2012

Specvent Calendar Day 20 - Knight Lore

Knight Lore (1984, Ultimate)

It obviously had to be here somewhere – I can happily ignore some of the acknowledged “classics” because I didn’t have them at the time, or I was so bad at them I gave up in the first few screens (hello JSW…) but when I unwrapped Knight Lore on Christmas Day 1984 I was set for a full day’s playing, and then another and, well, you get the idea. This was it, this was the game that proved the Spectrum was best: you can keep your chunky colour sprites, I’ve got beautifully detailed graphics in isometric 3D. One colour per screen, yes, but what colours…

Detail would be superfluous on such a well-known game, but briefly your task is to cure your lycanthropy by finding the wizard’s cauldron, then feeding it with the ingredients necessary to keep you human 24 hours a day, hindered only by a selection of ghosts, blobs, clockwork knights, falling blocks, portcullises and the tendency to transform into a wolf at inconvenient times. And what a transformation! Dad didn’t care about the gameplay so much, but would keep watching just to see man become wolf, or wolf become man. There was a time limit of 40 ‘days’ before you had doggie breath for life, but that never worried me, I was usually dead by day 15.

So popular it spawned an entire genre of copycat games (many of them by UPTG themselves, sadly) yet there were only two or three (Batman and Head Over Heels, and possibly Sweevo’s World) that could arguably be said to have improved on the original. But I didn’t play any of those obsessively between Christmas and New Year to a constant soundtrack of Cocteau Twins’ Treasure LP (also a Christmas present, and also still one of my top ten albums, fact fans.)

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Specvent Calendar Day 19 - Splat!

Splat! (Incentive Software, 1983)

The 9th entry on the calendar from 1983 (and there's still one more to come...) Splat! remains probably unique among Spectrum games and yet a definite precursor of current i-thing gaming. The graphics are simple, sound minimal, and movement by character rather than pixel, but the game is pure addiction.

You play a cross-shaped , erm, thing, called Zippy, seeking to escape from an enchanted garden that's trying to kill you, much as enchanted gardens are wont to do. You move around eating grass and plums, while the maze moves round you, in a bizarre conflation of the control scheme where you move round the screen and the one where you (usually) stay centred while the background moves. Stay pretty much in the centre of the screen and you're usually safe, until the scenery forces you to the edges or you encounter the barbed wire spikes, but there again venture nearer the edge of your own free will and there may be some delicious invisible grass to much on for Big's the classic risk/reward equation and it gets me every time!

While the maze movement seems random, it has specific start and end points for each sector, so with experience you always know which way it is most likely to move at any time, though it often surprises you with fatal consequences. For instance on Level 2, you'll always start by being forced up through the river crossing as above, then usually back down before finally going up again - and one of the irritations is that it's often quite difficult to get Zippy to move only one space rather than two, unless there's a friendly wall to lean against: is our hero a wee bit tipsy, perhaps? Either way, update the graphics a bit, add tilt controls and you have a fully-formed iThing game ready to roll in the bucks...

This is a game I actually remember buying (£2.50 from the 2nd-hand software guy in Chester market; he told me he thought it was rubbish himself) and being annoyed that the £500 competition prize had already been won, as I quickly scored higher than the winner...

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Specvent Calendar Day 18 - Spectres

Spectres (Bug-Byte, 1982)

So, why is an obvious Pacman clone in this late in the list? Is it the one I said a couple of days ago I'd forgotten, and that should have been shoved in the first few days? Read on, Yes and No, in that order.

Spectres, the only release in my Specvent calendar from 1982, is indeed a Pacman clone. Sort of. As Eddie the electrician, you have to relight the gloomy passages while avoiding the ghosts, with bonuses to find and generators to light up the passages and make the ghosts vulnerable. Thing is though, you only light up the passages you've already rewired, ghosts only become vulnerable when they're "in the light", and if they leave the lit sections they quickly recover their scare factor. Then consider that after the usual short grace period, not only does the generator switch off, but all the bulbs lit by it blow and return to darkness. As can be imagined, this makes progress between screens a perilous affair, as after the last generator blows you can be faced with re-re-re-rewiring almost the entire screen. Even when you finally get the entire space lit up, you still have to make it back to the central pen before you move on to the next screen. Suffice to say I only made it that far once tonight, and I don't remember ever getting past the third screen.

As for the ghosts themselves, they are pleasingly different, much like the original but possibly more so - while yellow will unlive and let live, blue will wander at random but hone in if he catches sight of you, green is pretty much your everyghost and red... don't talk to me about red. If you're not quick, he'll get you before you make a turn, and once he gets a bead on you the wraparound passages are your only hope. I could go on, but suffice to say it's challengingly difficult without relying on sheer speed or challenge as did so many others at the time. The graphics and sound are functional and movement is smooth.

And, more to the point of it's placing, it was both one of the first two Spectrum games I owned (along with Psion's Planetoids) and my father's all-time favourite game. Even as a young teenager it was kind of magical to see how much my 55-year old dad enjoyed this game (even if he did insist on referring to it as "Ernie the Electrician") and looking back now... yeah. Nice game, great memories.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Specvent Calendar Day 17 - Xeno

Xeno (A'n'F, 1986)

Xeno is another of the set of games I discovered while at university, I think from a marked-down original, as I know I paid a budget price but I don't remember it coming out as a budget re-release  It's the Sports Game Redux, most closely resembling a cross between Subbuteo and Air Hockey, though playing like neither. It's just your giant vitamin tablet against your opponent's giant vitamin tablet in a quest for goals.

Seriously, though this is just a great game. You control your puck by choosing a destination point, which will probably (though not always) want to intersect the ball along the way. It's turn-based, so as soon as your puck is in motion the oppenent (human or CPU) starts his move selection, and so on. As you play, you start to learn some of the angles and rebounds you can use to your advantage - I even remembered some of them tonight, winning the above game 7-3. Even though movement selection is not simultaneous, if you're quick and can anticipate your opponent's move, you can even try to intercept the ball in motion.

Another stand-out feature is the wide variety of options:

A game that offers redefinable keys is already off to a good start, though to be fair by 1986 most did. What sets Xeno apart, though, is the selectable quarter length (1-9 minutes) and much more significantly the selectable timeout (0-9 seconds.) This really alters the feel of the game - set it to 0 and you've pretty much got an arcade game with both pucks constantly in motion. Set it to 9 and you've got a leisurely strategy game as you try to select the perfect shot (though a 'fire' button lets you still react instantly should the need arise.)

80%+ reviews all round (except for C&VG which seemed to miss the whole point of the game by complaining that you can't just control your puck directly) suggest the game was well received at the time, and it's one of those rare gems that plays just as well today.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Specvent Calendar Day 16 - Chaos

Chaos (Games Workshop, 1985)

First admission - I remembered a game which wasn't originally in my calendar, but for personal reasons absolutely must be included, so against my original intentions this will end up being one of those modern-day revisionist calendars that includes a day 25...

Second admission - I didn't have  Chaos on release; despite the overwhelmingly positive reviews (as usual, YS excepted) I took one look at the screenshots, then another at the £8 price tag, and waited for Firebird to put it out at £1.99 a year or so later... then played it non-stop for the next few months (not literally, that would be both silly and make my A-level grades a minor miracle.) Up to 8 players, any or all of which can be AI, and the absolute guarantee that no two games would be the same - there are a plethora of spells, but you only have 10 to choose from for the whole game, unless you have a spell that lets you gain more.

You can kit yourself out with knives and shields, mount a horse or manticore for greater protection and mobility, create woods, castles, fires or spreading gooey blobs, and of course cast creatures to attack your opponents. The more powerful the creature, the less the chance of successfully casting it, but you can always cast it as an illusion - this is guaranteed to succeed, but try it with a dragon and watch it very quickly become the subject of a Disillusion spell, especially later in the game when, as the only spell that doesn't vanish after use, it's all some wizards have left to cast.

Being a D&D game, most spells are also aligned to good or evil, and as the game goes on the type of spells cast will affect how easy each type is to cast, though there are also spells which do nothing but change this effect as well. Then there are the special effects of undead creatures to consider... in the years since release, Chaos appears to have been the subject of more recreation projects than almost any other Spectrum game (except possibly JSW) and still remains just as playable today - XBox Live Indie release, anyone?

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Specvent Calendat Day 15 - Wizard's Lair

Wizard's Lair (Bubble Bus, 1985)

Hang on, didn't we already cover Atic Atac a few days ago? There's no getting away from it, Wizard's Lair wears its influences pretty openly, but then again, so did Spectipede. It takes the AA formula and adds resource management, in the form of depletable stocks of weaponry and keys - run out of one and you're defenceless, the other and you're stuck on getting through half the doors in the game (the ones that open and close randomly are still there, but as I discovered on my second play tonight you can easily get stuck in a room with no self-opening doors carrying no keys, at which point you may as well sing of gold... luckily, as well as picking up health bonuses and occasionally extra lives, you can also pick up extra weapons and keys, and also gold, which can be exchanged for keys, diamonds, weapons or health on finding a scroll, as above. I should also know what the diamonds were for...

Most enemies drain health, but the knights and executioners are instakills - unless you've recently picked up a helmet. With skulls to kills you, Lion pieces to help you escape, secret passages, lifts, trapdoors and even a magic lift (again, above) to take you to any of the seven levels (as long as you know their names) there was a lot going on here. Indeed, memory use was squeezed so much that some of the rooms had to do without borders and draw in blank walls each time you enter them.

Wizard's Lair got positive reviews almost everywhere, including a Crash Smash, through Your Spectrum contrived to find three reviewers who all agreed it was "mediocre... old hat" - maybe they couldn't use the diamonds either...

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Specvent Calendar Day 14 - Deus Ex Machina

Deus Ex Machina (Automata, 1984)

Not so much a game, more of an experience - the only Spectrum game with a full album-length soundtrack and also the only Spectrum game I ever purchased mail order (after persuading my mum to go over the road to the phone box to ask them who to make the cheque to, as the advert didn't say.) Just as the Llamasoft games could only have been thought up by Jeff Minter, so this had Mel Croucher's mindprint all over it. You guide the progress of the offspring of a computer overmind and a mouse dropping (told you...) conceived, as the lyrics have it, "not in a test tube but in a piny mug." Various minigames are synched to the soundtrack, most of which have you protecting your charge from malkign influences, and as a new track begins so does a new game - as long as the speed is in synch of course!

By themselves the games would hold little appeal, but when matched to the music it can get strangely hypnotic - putting this on to try it out tonight I was playing for almost 20 minutes before I could pause it to write this review. I can't stress enough that the soundtrack is stonkingly good, especially the second half on side one for me, and well worth listening to solus: Ian Dury, Frankie Howard, Jon Pertwee and Donna Bailey form the main voice cast, with a rather wonderful polemic from historian  E.P. Thompson thrown in on Side 2. Shame they misspelled Jon's name on the credits though...

Friday, 14 December 2012

Specvent Calendar Day 13 - Atic Atac

Atic Atac (Ultimate, 1983)

Just to prove I'm not being deliberately cussed in all my picks... once again Ultimate pretty much invent a genre with Atic Atac, which was possibly the first game for the Spectrum to be widely anticipated ahead of release. Unlike most of that ilk, though, Atic Atac didn't disappoint, and we marvelled that Ultimate could produce such a wonder for under £6. A bit too loudly, as it turned out...

My first encounter with the game was Issue 1 of Crash, where it had arrived too late for a full review but early enough for thr reviewer to conclude the preview with the promise of a score "well into the nineties" - I remember being disappointed it only got 92% in the end, though looking back you wonder what the marks could possibly have been deducted for. Like Ant Attack you had a choice of hero, unlike that game your choice made more than a cosmetic difference, with each type having a different set of secret passages available in addition to the common doors & trapdoors. I never did find all the parts of the ACG key (a common refrain in these reports, I fear) but exploring was its own reward (I kept telling myself.) A giant leap forward in Spectrum gaming, and dare I say in home computer gaming besides.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Specvent Calendar Day 12 - Transversion

Transversion (Ocean, 1984)

Sorry this entry's a little later than usual, I've spent the past hour playing the game! One of four games in the calendar to run in 16K, Transversion epitomises the addictive simplicity of the best early Spectrum games.

I guess in a sense it's Pacman meets Gridrunner, as your spaceship traverses the grid eating the dots, while four ships attempt to home in on you and make you stop eating those dots by obliterating you. Eat all the dots and another screen awaits... on odd-numbered screens the dots (or squares, or whatever - the design and pattern changes each time, though it's always symmetrical) are worth the same number of points as the level, so a perfect run on Level 1 will see you rack up a puny 98 points. Fail, and you have to start from scratch again. On even numbered screens, though, the dots (they're meant to be aliens, but they're obviously really cabbages) are always worth 50 points, so perfect Level 2 above and your 98 points becomes 1498. Catch being, lose a life here and they don't reset - in fact you're booted straight on to Level 3 and back to the mundanity of a mere 3 points per square.

It's a classic risk/reward scenario, except the risk is compulsory, you have to clear the screen or die in the attempt. You move at the same speed as the missiles, so outrunning ones chasing you is no problem, but fly to close to a ship with a laser ready to fire and you're very quickly toast. And with four missiles on screen most of the time, it's all to easy to take evasive action straight into another one...

Having played it again tonight, I'm kind of sorry it's only on Day 12, as were I to compile an actual 10 favourite Speccy games this would most definitely be in there. It's another one that passed me by on release though, I first played it off the 1985 Select 1 compilation (one of if not the first "Greatest Hits" games compilations released) and was instantly hooked, but I'd for some reason not gone back to it on any of my emulators in recent times. That. Will. Change.

A positive 83% rating from Crash, which they backed up in a "rerate" feature a mere six months later, but it seems to have been ignored by all the other mags. They stupid, you smart, you go play Transversion now.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Specvent Calendar Day 11 - Advanced Pinball Simulator

Advanced Pinball Simulator (Codemasters, 1988)

Firmly in the realm of games that saw me through Uni today, with a game only released halfway through that period. As can be seen from the shots above, it made little attempt to reflect a real table, with onscreen graphics changing as you accomplish goals and a peculiarly square playing area. It also had a fairly unique take on the laws of physics, though I take issue with the SU review which said that the Darlings (for 'twas they) decided to "let the ball go anywhere at random": ball movement may not be reflective of a typical pintable, but it is entirely self-consistent, to the extent of hitting a shot and immediately realising there's a 90% chance it will bounce two or three times then drain.

You just need to play it enough to learn its physics, which I certainly did... couldn't top 12K tonight but back then my high scores were over 100K, though even then I never got near to completing the game. Nonetheless the urge to go again to destroy a little more of the castle, or start to build your house, was intense.

I couldn't find a Crash review, but YS gave APS a reasonable 7/10. SU gave it 42% as "the worst [Oliver Twins] game to date, but there again, it was SU. It's not, in truth, a game I still play, but after firing it up tonight that may change...

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Specvent Calendar Day 10 - West Bank

West Bank (Dinamic via Gremlin Graphics, 1985)

West Bank is one of only two direct arcade conversions in this year's calendar, being a pretty faithful port of Bank Panic, and I think it's the only one not to originate from the UK, with Gremlin merely providing a sales route and translation for the Spanish original. It's also not from 1983...

In truth, if you know the arcade original, there's little to say about West Bank, it's just an excellent conversion of what was already a simple game, with the Spectrum's trademark compensation of detailed monochrome colours against the C64's less well-defined but vastly more colourful offering. But for those who don't... you're a bank clerk in the Old West (the actual location's unspecified but I'm presuming Aberystwyth...) charged with taking deposits from customers and protecting them from bandits. The first level's nice and gentle, with the only bandit a slow draw, but Level 2 has a quick-draw artist who you also can't shoot until he draws first, Level 3 introduces a bandit who shoots as soon as he appears, and then there's the guy who can't decide which side of the law on which to reside, and is as likely to deposit money as shoot you... adding to the fun is a Dwarf With Many Hats, which you can shoot off to reveal either cash (shoot to claim) or a bomb (shoot to die.) With a fire key for each window and L/R to switch between the 12 windows, keyboard controls are fine, which is unfortunate when you're as bad at the game as I am and are looking for something to blame... if you do finally get deposits in all 12 slots (matron...) you switch to a bonus screen with three bandits, all of whom you have to outdraw, still without being the first to pull your weapon out. Ultra-quick responses net an extra life, my responses ensure I start the next level with one fewer life than I finished the last.

No great back story to this one, it's another game I didn't really pick up on until Uni, since when I've been playing it off and on ever since. Simple and addictive, Crash gave it 84%, with YS and SU similarly enthused. Great game, go play it.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Specvent Calendar Day 9 - Ant Attack

Ant Attack (Quicksilva, 1983)

And we swiftly return to my comfort zone of 1983, for the first ever isometric 3D video game (probably.) For me, this was the game that showed why the Speccy ruled the 80s, with it's Black & White Escher-inspired artwork that just wouldn't have looked right on the garish look-at-my-colour-palette C64 (though it was converted to the C64, the etherial essence did not transfer across...) 

In essence the game was a fairly simple search and retrieve premise, with you searching for your mate (as you can see from the first screen above, the gender is up to you, though a hetero outlook is assumed, unfortunately...) and escorting them to safety in the midst of a giant Ant Attack (say, that was a well-named game, there.) It's a shame, given that the playing window is so scrum,ptious, that the surround is ugly as hell, but the default Sinclair font was used almost universally back then. A shame also that the control scheme was so finicky, with no less than 12 keys, including four for different firing distances for your antpowder gun and four to switch views - oh for a twin analogue joystick setup :)

Still, file this as another one I have fond memories of playing with dad back then, and if the gameplay doesn't quite hold up today the graphics certainly do. At the time Crash gave it 85%, with only the control scheme keeping it from Smash status, though four years later in a retrospective they marked it down to a stupefying 22%, saying it looked "dismal" with weak gameplay. The same article downgraded Head Over Heels to 65% and Knight Lore to 51% though, so was obviously written by an idiot...

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Specvent Calendar Day 8 - Mined Out

Mined Out (Quicksilva, 1983)

Yes, it's back to 1983 and no, I'm not going to apologise... unlike some of my other 1983 picks, though, this one is not based solely on nostalgia, not least because it's not a game I owned at the time, only playing it for the first time from a Your Sinclair Covertape in 1991.

As the name and above screenshots attest, it's a close relative of the Minesweeper family, and as far as I can tell the first implementation of such on a home computer or console. Rather than clicking on squares at will, you have to navigate through a minefield knowing only how many mines are in squares orthogonally connected to your current location - as you go through the levels the mine density increased, and your only comfort is the knowledge that there are never any mines in the top or bottom rows. Just remember that the barbed wire surround is all mined though... from the second level on there are also damsels to rescue for Big Points, and on level three bugs start chasing you. If you make it all the way to Level 9 you can rescue Bill the Worm, though safe to say I never did, at least not legitimately... 

It's probably no shock to reveal that this game was programmed in BASIC, and indeed is proof that with a sufficiently strong and simple premise this is fine. As with Test Match, you can BREAK into the program and tinker away, but unlike that game I never felt the need, as it was pitched pretty perfectly to start with. Except for one thing, the key layout. As the game predated the Interface 2 it would be petty to carp, but while having 6 and 7 for Left and Right is fine, 8 is Down and 9 Up, resulting in myriad unnecessary deaths across the years... incidentally, if you do happen to break in, you get the following rather nice Easter Egg at the top of the listing:

Overall it got a pretty good rep at the time, I've not found a single negative review, and even a year later Crash's Living Guide gave it a Recommended verdict. It was the only Spectrum game that really worked with my old N-Gage emulator, and it still holds up today. If you've not played it, do - I guarantee you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Specvent Calendar Day 7 - Match Day II

Match Day II (Ocean, 1987)

Yep. Not from 1983. Not even the original 1984 Match Day, ground-breaking as that was in its day. No, Match Day II gets my nod because this was the game we used to have footie tournaments on at Uni. As well as player vs player and player vs CPU, you could also team up against the poor unsuspecting Spectrum (which generally thrashed the pair of you, of course.) It was also the first game I played to incorporate back-heels - see that meter at the top? It determined the strength with which your heroic shlob would kick the ball, and if it was on -1, back it went, ususally to general hilarity and teeth-gnashing. Firing it up tonight in the light of all that's come since it seems borderline unplayable, but such is often the way with pioneers...

Specvent Calendar Day 6 - Tranz Am

Probably Tombstone, Arizona...

Tranz Am (Ultimate, 1983)

OK, finally a choice that's going to be in some other people's list of favourite games, this was a simple (16K!) top-down racer in the Hitch-hikers Guide mode, i.e. you stay still and the universe moves around you. All you had to do was collect the eight cups randomly hidden on a map about 50 times the size of the playing area, while avoiding crash cars and scenery, topping up with fuel regularly and not letting the engine overheat by driving too fast... in hindsight it's probably a lesser game than Pssst!, which came out from the same company at the same time, but it was this one that got played night after night after school...

Short entry today 'cos I'm feeling lousy - sorry! Promise there's some games coming up which weren't release in 1983... probably.