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Monday, 25 July 2011

Alleykat (Commodore 64)

Uridium was a huge success. Commodore 64 owners lapped up the slick blaster, and with good reason. It was as close to an arcade game as they had seen at that point, looking and sounding spectacular and offering a great and enjoyable challenge.

Talking of challenges... how was Andrew Braybrook going to follow up his latest mega-hit? It must have been tempting to go with another straight shooter, but that wasn't the Braybrook way. Instead, he went with a racing game... with a twist.

Free, you say? Loves a bargain, me.

The game was called Alleykat, and was again set way into the future. This time, though, there were no Dreadnoughts in sight. Alleykat is set squarely on terra firma... well, maybe not terra firma, as this game sees you playing the role of a pilot in an intergalactic racing league.

The league takes place over the course of a year, with each month hosting a number of events. You're able to enter just one of these events per month, and your ability to do so depends on how much cash you've got. When you start out you're skint, as you've spunked all your cash on your racer... luckily the first race of the season is free to enter.

Yeah, just drop me off here mate, I'll be alright.

If you scroll down the calendar, you'll notice that you can peruse each event ahead of time. This is handy, because it means you can pick and choose your career. And you'll want to, because you'll develop your own style and favourite types of races and tracks, and you'll also learn which tracks to avoid...

Different events might range from Time Trial to Demolition to Dodge'em, with more besides. Each title states the obvious, so from that you can work out what you fancy getting up to, and choose accordingly. That's not to say you'll necessarily have an easy time of it from cherry-picking your favourites, though...

Beware the Cater-Killer...

Each type of race has an objective, as specified by its race type. So, obviously, in a Demolition race you'll score more highly for destroying all the scenery; in a Time Trial you'll score more highly for finishing quickly, etc. You can add to your score though, by destroying the hostile craft that patrol the racetracks. They're really thrown in as a distraction from your main objective, though, because unless you're racing on a Demolition track, you're not going to want to break off from what you're concentrating on. And you especially won't want to do that on a Dodg'em course... very dangerous.

Finishing the race will earn you prize money, which is essential to the continuation of your career. As I mentioned earlier, you'll need funds to enter the later, more prestigious events. If you fail to complete a race, you'll get nowt. You can just about afford this early on, but later races cost more to enter, so if you crash, your season is pretty much finished. It does look amazing when you crash though. Small consolation. It might be worth keeping an eye on the track as you race... small amounts of credits are strewn around, waiting to be picked up... another distraction, but it can be worth the effort.

Save the rainforest! No, wait... destroy the rainforest!

This all sounds pretty great... so what's wrong with it? Sadly, the racing itself is flawed. In many of the races, you can simply move to the right, blast everything in your path for an entire lap, and then hightail it outta there at top speed for the rest of the race. This doesn't necessarily serve you for the best in a Demolition race, but it'll get you to the end intact, winning you the money you need to progress. There's not enough of a feeling of threat or danger. The Dodg'ems are more difficult and you'll need a good deal of skill to get through them, but you can just, erm, dodg'em if you want and choose easier races.

I have to say, though... for all Alleykat is a little less-well regarded than earlier Braybrook games, I really enjoyed re-acquainting myself with it. It's not as good a game as the three that came before it, of that there is no doubt. The flaws in this one are a bit bigger and slightly more damaging, but there's still some good fun to be had. The variety of choice as you play through the game and the high score potential combine to keep things relatively fresh, even if you have a session lasting a couple of hours.

Here I go, way too faa-a-aaast, don't slow down I'm gonna craa-a-aaash. Oh... I did.

I actually think that Alleykat was a game ahead of its time. It's a really good idea that was hampered by the limitations of technology. Being a vertical scroller is the obvious orientation for a racer, but with the tracks being so cluttered you're forced to play the game "wrong". As I write this, I'm envisioning a 3D, into-the-screen racer. It could even have the same graphic style, albeit fancied-up with today's technology, but you'd have a better chance of playing it properly on all stages, and it could be really good fun. As it was, Alleykat was a pretty decent game, although many would say it marked the beginning of a slippery slope...

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Uridium (Commodore 64)

I doubt that Andrew Braybrook had time to rest on his laurels, or even to really celebrate the success of Paradroid. In those days, time was most definitely money... although you didn't realise it as a thirteen-year-old, the Commodore 64 (and all comparable systems of the era) were saddled with a ticking time-bomb known as shelf-life, and as soon as the next generation of technology became available and affordable, the money to be made on current machines would dwindle dramatically. If you had a big hit, you had to strike while the iron was hot and write another one.

Breathe in... aaaaaand relax.

Braybrook had had a massive hit with Paradroid, so it would be imperative to capitalise on that and get a hot new game out there as soon as possible. He decided to mine a similar vein and set his next game around massive Dreadnought spaceships... but rather than being inside them, you were attacking them from the outside in an arcade space blaster. It was called Uridium.

The game sees our solar system under attack from a fleet of giant Dreadnoughts, and we can't have that. So off you go in your nimble little space fighter to go and bring the blighters down. Each ship is named after a metallic element, getting progressively more valuable (and difficult!) as you go on. The ships are long but narrow, with superstructures causing difficulty in navigating from one end to the other.

Mine! Mine! Mine!

Also making things difficult are the enemy attack ships which fly in to defend each Dreadnought. These things are highly efficient and well-drilled, keeping tight formations in an attempt to bring your little mission to a swift end. This can be their downfall, too... you can obliterate entire formations with just a few blasts. But some of those buggers are really fast and nasty. Luckily your ship is very manouevrable, and a quick flip can see you dodging bullets and heading out of trouble.

As if these dangers weren't enough, there are little portals all over the Dreadnoughts, and if you hang around these for too long, they will release homing mines. Possibly even more dangerous than the craft that shoot at you, these things will chase you around meaning evasive action is imperative. That's all very well if you've got some open space, but if there are any structures nearby, you're in real trouble...

I love... goooooold. The look of it, the smell of it, the texture...

Reach the end of a Dreadnought and survive long enough, and a siren will blare, alerting you that you can "Land now!" If you manage this (not necessarily as easy as it sounds... I've often been blown to pieces before I could hit the runway), then you get to land and set off the destruct sequence. Awesome! All you do, though, is play a quick bonus game for extra points, and then you're outta there, completing a fly-by back to the front of the ship... and watching it dissolve underneath you. You'll then be whisked off to tackle the next, more difficult ship...

Uridium is another game that gave my Zipstik a severe working-over when I was younger. Unfortunately, once the game loads up and the excellent title tune starts, memories come flooding back... of my mate Neil Steadman, dancing stupidly to the music in his bedroom. Some things, once they are seen, can never be unseen...

Phew, it's boiling!

Childhood tortures aside, Uridium is quite literally a blast. You can fire more bullets in this game than almost any other Commodore 64 game, as long as you've got a trigger finger that's up to the task. It's hard to say you'll need them... attack waves are fairly small and well spread out. But there are some vicious bastards in there, so wiping them out as quickly as possible can be quite advantageous, seeing that it's probably the difference between life and death...

A large part of the game, though, does not involve shooting. The Dreadnoughts, you see, are very cleverly designed, getting more and more difficult to navigate the further you progress. It's really important that you memorise each ship's layout if you want to weave your way to the end at speed. When you reach a new one, for the first few goes you have to tiptoe your way through, which is a real problem when you're being assaulted by deadly attack ships. After a few games, though, you start to zip around with more confidence, and it's a real thrill to shoot through a tight gap and onto the runway, with a squadron of enemy fighters on your tail.

Hey, don't go blowing that up, it's platinum! It's worth a fortune!

It's fair to say that Uridium is a mite repetitive, but you could say that about most arcade shooters. What's important is how well it plays, how it feels to play. And Uridium feels really good. There's not much to it... there are no extra weapons to discover, and little new from ship one to ship fifteen. It just gets harder, and challenges you to get better, and it remains enjoyable all the way. It's not perfect... it can be a touch annoying, for instance, having to hwait around for the "Land Now" signal (although this would be rectified a couple of years later...), but it is damn good, it looks fantastic and is certainly one of the best arcade-style shoot 'em ups on the Commodore 64.