If ZZAP! 64 had courted controversy over Thalamus' releases in the past, either with the awarding of Gold Medals that people didn't agree with or the supposed under-rating of Delta, there was nary a murmur when it came to their opinion of Thalamus' sixth game - Armalyte. Why the quiet? ZZAP! 64 gave it a Gold Medal... but this time, almost everyone agreed.
Once more, unto the breach... do they have to make it so claustrophobic right from the outset?
The plot of Armalyte is... oh, who cares? Some twaddle that loosely ties it in with Delta... apparently, it seemed like a good idea to market this as a sequel to that game, as if this wasn't good enough to stand on its own. It's more than good enough, and certainly doesn't need the Delta II subtitle it was lumbered with.
With no structures to run into, this doesn't look so bad... just don't get rammed.
Armalyte is a game that takes every other shoot 'em up on the Commodore 64, and ramps up all their best bits by a few notches. It starts in classic Nemesis/Gradius fashion, with your ship flying from left to right as waves of enemies fly toward you, intent on your destruction. The power-up system is different, though... rather than collecting pods left behind by the destruction of enemy formations, a la Konami's classic, weapons pods are to be found floating in space, and you activate them by blasting them.
Mmmm, eggs. Wish I'd had a proper breakfast before I left...
Shooting the floating pods repeatedly switches them through a cycle that includes increased forward fire, rear fire and vertical fire, among others. And if that's not enough for you, you have two huge laser weapons you can switch between that are very satisfying to unleash. Oh, and you start the game with a drone ship which replicates your firepower, which is just as well, given everything you have to attempt to cope with...
Don't go spitting that stuff at me. That's just rude.
There are a few things that elevate Armalyte beyond the bog-standard shooter. The first thing you're likely to notice is the number of enemy ships that you have to deal with. The attack waves come thick and fast, with each containing a good number of attackers. They're relentless, and they're difficult to deal with as they whip about at an often alarming rate. It's overwhelming at first, and you'll find yourself crushed to dust far more often than you'd like.
OK, big fella... get a load of what I'm packing.
Then there are the levels themselves. They're huge, and you'll often be praying for the relative safety of deep space, as you'll frequently find yourself with just a small gap to squeeze through, which mightn't be so bad if it wasn't for the alien attack ships waiting on the other side... There's quite a bit of variety to the levels, which is highly commendable. OK, so the game loaded each level separately, but I can think of plenty of multiload games that didn't try so hard. The levels change in colour as you move through them, and each has its own style, giving the game a massive sense of scale.
It's not the scary heads I'm worried about. It's that giant wall beyond them.
Should you negotiate the countless minions and treacherous landscapes, you'll find that each level has its own gigantic boss to overcome. These are actually probably the weakest points of Armalyte. They're not bad, don't get me wrong, just a bit too similar to each other. It's always been pretty difficult to come up with good enemy boss ship it seems, and for all they look impressive, especially when they take it upon themselves to fly across the screen at you, I can't help but feel they could have been better. But that's as much a constraint of the horizontally-scrolling shoot 'em up as anything else.
Die, alien scum! OK, I've used that one before. If it ain't broke, etc...
Armalyte is pretty much a wonder of the 8-bit era. It came at a time when people thought they could no longer be surprised or impressed by a Commodore 64 game, and were proven wrong in slack-jawed amazement. It was easily Thalamus' most impressive release to date from a technical standpoint, although whether it's actually a better game than Hunter's Moon is something we can argue about over a pint down the pub one day. Regardless, it was fully deserving of its ZZAP! Gold Medal, and any other honours that may have been thrown its way. It's good enough to make me want to play again now that I've finished writing about it... the sign of a top-notch game if ever there was one.