Sunday, 27 March 2011

Back to the Future (Commodore 64)

The clocks went forward this morning, but in reality we went back... Back... To The Future!


Still, what better way to use a tenuous link for an impromptu piece of blogging? And with that settled in my mind, I loaded up Back to the Future, on the Commodore 64.

Isn't he a dreamboat?

The Back to the Future game follows the plot of the film, to a degree, in that you're stuck in Hill Valley in 1955, and you need to get your parents-to-be together and get the hell out of then. Naturally, this involves picking up objects and using them in the right places. Yes.

It's not that hard to figure out the puzzles in Back to the Future... there are only five locations, and five items to be used. Even if some of them are a bit obscure... why, for instance, does the radiation suit make Lorraine stand still?... the permutations are so few that you should have it sussed in little time.

Why don't you make like a tree, and get outta here?

To make it more difficult, your time in the game depends upon the photo of your family remaining intact. In effect, this is your energy level, and it has two levels in itself. The photo of Marty decays more quickly... when it is gone, a piece will decay from the family photo. When that one's gone, you're outta time.

That doesn't sound too harsh, but every time you bump into Lorraine, the photos will decay like there's no tomorrow (which, conincidentally, there won't be if you don't complete the game). And as there are so few locations, she's there all the bloody time. It doesn't help that Biff will knock you on your arse every so often, and while you're sitting there, Lorraine is usually standing fawning over you, draining your life all the while.

Jesus, George, it's a wonder I was even born.

You can replenish your photo, though. If you should successfully use an object in the right place on the right person, that'll help. If you can get George and Lorraine to the dance hall and use the guitar, they'll have a little dance and you'll get some energy back. Hurrah!

It all sounds kinda cute, and all, but... it's rubbish. The graphics are horrible, and don't give you any kind of feeling of being in the movie. The lack of locations is a major detriment to longevity with the game, especially seeing as they're all right next to each other. The characters themselves trudge about, looking as though they wished their time was up. And the music, which could have been a high point, consists of a couple of ropey renditions of the film's songs.

The Enchantment Under The Sea Dance! Of course!

If there's a movie tie-in game that Back to the Future reminds me of, it's... E.T. What? Yep... think about it. You have a huge film, but with no obvious gameplay aspects. The game has hardly any locations to visit, and very few characters from the film. The characters in the game are very blocky and barely recognisable. A couple of the characters are huge nuisances that spoil your game for you. You could easily be reading about either E.T. or Back to the Future here. And E.T. is not a great template to use for your film tie-in game. I would hardly say that Back to the Future is a waste of potential, because it would have been hard to make a decent game out of it, but this one makes you wish that the Libyans had got Marty as well.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Zybex (Commodore 64)

Remember an arcade game called Side Arms? It was a horizontally-scrolling shoot 'em up for one or two players, where you flew fellas in suits across the landscape blasting all and sundry, and collecting bolt-on power-ups to upgrade your weaponry. It was an alright blaster, if nothing special.

Hey! Didn't I see you in Delta?

The Commodore 64 version, though, was a bit rubbish. And then, from out of nowhere and from an unassuming little budget software house, came a game called Zybex. It was the first release from Zeppelin Games, and it was a hell of a way to announce their arrival.

Zybex is a one or (simultaneous!) two-player game that sees you blasting your way across sixteen worlds. You always begin your game on the first world, Arcturus, but if you can get to the end, you can choose any of the levels from two to twelve in any order. It's an excellent progression system, and it almost guarantees that you won't get bored. You can also spend a bit of time figuring out a preferred route... it's likely that you'll find some worlds easier than others.

Aargh! UFOs! Kill them all!

A horizontally-scrolling shoot 'em up would be nothing without extra weapons though, and Zybex has plenty. Shooting certain enemies will release these weapons, five in total, and picking up more than one will increase the power of that weapon. Again, it's a great system, with some weapons working better on some enemies, meaning you'll need to switch on the fly, or you can develop your own playing style. Careful though... if you die, you'll lose a power level from the weapon you were using at the time...

This world is called Diablos. Oddly, it's not that difficult.

As you progress, you'll need to keep an eye out, as the only way you can access levels thirteen to sixteen is by collecting tokens that can be found throughout the levels. They're not that difficult to spot, they look totally different from anything else in the game.

Zybex is a tough game, but a really fun one. Even unlocking one of the later levels takes a heck of a lot of doing, but you'll have a good time trying. Again, this is a game I owned and loved back in the day, and it didn't disappoint when I played it again. Another tremendous bargain at £1.99.

Chiller (Commodore 64)

Here's a game that I played before I even owned a Commodore 64, courtesy of one of my mates. It was one of Mastertronic's earlier C64 games, and it was programmed by the Darling Brothers, who went on to become Codemasters...

Coz this is Chiller... Chiller night... what?

Apparently they weren't code masters when they programmed this... the emulator version spends a lot of time slagging them off for releasing a broken game that was impossible to complete, and goes into detail about how the cracker had to rewrite the game to make it doable!

It's typical early-years Commodore 64 fare... a simple platformer split into a few screens, where you have to collect everything on one screen in order to progress to the next. You can actually tell it's pretty much a bridge from the Vic 20 or C-16 to the C64. And if you haven't guessed, it's loosely (cough!) based on Michael Jackson's Thriller video...

This film must be rubbish, there's nobody here!

Chiller a very colourful game... almost too colourful... but it's not exactly thrilling, being a fairly slow-moving effort where you just wait for things to pass before collecting the crosses you need. You do have an energy limit which forces some urgency, but completing the task at hand is not really much fun. Still, in those early days I'm sure it kept a fair few people happy for their £1.99.

ZUB (ZX Spectrum)

ZUB is a game that came highly recommended to me by Spectrum owners. And indeed, on World of Spectrum it averages a highly respectable 7.8 out of 10 from the voting public, which is about on a par with its Crash review of 79%. And yet, I remembered it not doing very well in ZZAP! 64. Must have been a poor port, I figured, as I settled down to play.

Poor ZUB is a creature on the planet ZUB, where everybody is called ZUB. That's gonna cause a bit of confusion. Turns out the green eyeball of ZUB, one of King ZUB's most precious crown jewels, has been nicked. And for some reason you, a coward of the highest order, has been promoted to Sergeant and tasked with the duty of retrieving it.

I'm facing the wrong way. They're going to knock me all the way to the bottom again...

The game has a great, well-written storyline, which made me chuckle a couple of times. Pity the same can't be said about the game. To escape a planet, ZUB must use the platforms that are positioned around the place to get as high as possible, where the teleport is situated. ZUB must find a platform, leap onto it, and then steer it to where the next highest is located, jump up to that one, and so on.

Sounds easy, but there are robots hovering about who will think nothing of knocking ZUB from his perch. Chances are you'll get really high and then be knocked all the way to the bottom. It's really annoying and frustrating, and the bouncing screen when you walk doesn't help. ZUB is the worst game I've played so far today. It does nothing but irritate. If I want to play a game where I jump up a lot, I'll play PapiJump+ on my iPod Touch. The ZZAP! lads were right with this one, I think... not a lot of fun.

The Human Race (Commodore 64)

The Human Race is a game that I bought on a whim one day, played to death and loved... only to find that hardly anybody else seems to have heard of it!

Based upon the evolution of man, it's a five-screen game that mixes up a few game styles as you aim to progress from dopey caveman to stylin' sophisticate. There are many obstacles in the way, from dinosaurs early on (yeah, OK), to massive lava-spewing volcanos, crocodiles, giant spiders and finally Fate himself.

Level two, and it's getting a bit hot underfoot...

Each screen was quite difficult in its own right, but once you'd worked it out it was likely that you'd complete it nine times out of ten (although the final level, the race against Fate, was a bit trickier). Graphically it was a bit of a mixed bag, although still quite nice for a budget game. The music, though, was amazing. There was a different Rob Hubbard tune for every screen, and each one was absolutely superb and well-suited to the level.

If I saw a spider that big, I wouldn't make it until tomorrow, never mind another 25,000 years.

With no ZZAP! 64 review of this game, I'm not sure what prompted me to buy it, but I never regretted it. I completed it loads of times, and kept enjoying it, although a large part of playing it again and again was to listen to the music. Funnily enough, though, any time I've asked anyone else to play it, they've found it incredibly difficult and hated it. Even the person that cracked it for use with an emulator built in a scrolling message saying the game is rubbish and far too hard!

Level five, the race against Fate. I really don't see what's so tricky.

I'm not having that, and I'm going to share the love a bit today. For me, The Human Race kept me entertained for the entire life of my C64 and beyond. I know it's not the best game ever, I wouldn't claim that, but I've always enjoyed it and for me it was a fantastic use of £1.99, It's a game that I still fire up now and again, even today. And I still manage to complete it.

Action Biker (Commodore 64)

I reckon that if you ever played Action Biker back in the day, then you can still hum or whistle the music. Altogether now: do-dee-dooo, do-do-dee-doooo...

Lovely, catchy little tune aside, Action Biker (subtitled Clumsy Colin after a marketing deal with KP Skips!) saw you riding a motorbike around town with no real objective other than to pick up an item before time ran out. The quicker you found the next item the higher your score, providing the only real incentive to get a move on.

The last item picked up was a crash helmet. Just as well, if you're going to go dicking around on a building site...

Some of the items would prove useful in extending your game, such as a bigger fuel tank, and you could get items such as turbo boost which could help you complete the race course more quickly. And there were some memorable locations to explore, such as the building site or rollercoaster.

Action Biker was a great Sunday afternoon game, very chilled out and relaxed as you pootled around town. There was no great sense of urgency, even though you had a limitation on your fuel, and the laid-back soundtrack contributed further to that. It never got the heart racing, but Action Biker always left you with a little smile on your face.

Star Farce (ZX Spectrum)

I never had a Spectrum... I've mentioned that before... so I don't have a particularly wide knowledge of Spectrum games. A lot of the games I'll play today, I won't have played before. I'm quite looking forward to that... for all the Spectrum was maligned by a large section of Commodore 64 owners (and vice versa, of course), there's no doubt the Spectrum was home to a lot of quality games.

I picked this one because I love the arcade game Star Force. Still, I was a bit wary... would this be a total pisstake? I really didn't know how it would work out.

It turns out that Star Farce is a really good vertically-scrolling shooter. The reason for the name lies in the amusing plot... aliens have been trying to make contact with Earth for years, but every time they do, paranoid Earthlings send out waves of attack craft to wipe out these "aggressors". The Universe is collectively sick of this, and to put a stop to it (and to save those that are left), they've sent in a fighter pilot to destroy Earth's resources and attack craft, and all its inhabitants while they're at it. You are that fighter pilot.

Kapow-pow-pow-pow-pow! Take that, evil Earth scum!

I was amazed by Star Farce. For just £1.99, this would have been amazing value. The graphics are really great, being detailed and colourful. Pretty much everything you see is destructible... it felt fantastic to shoot a power generator and see it set off a chain reaction that destroyed everything connected to it.

There are loads of other tricks and surprises, too, one of which sees you going under the planet's surface to tackle a mothership. You also get loads of options before you even start playing the game. Star Farce is one of the most full-featured and entertaining shmups I've seen on either Spectrum or C64, which makes the price all the more surprising. The only quibble I really had was with the firing rate of the ship. Other than that, I had a really great time with it, and quite fancy another go now...

I, Ball (Commodore 64)

"I, Ball! I-I-I-I, Ball! I, Ball!"

I just about shit myself the first time I loaded this game and it shouted that at me. They could have put some kind of warning in the instructions or on the loading screen, or something. I'm sure it just said "Music and FX by Rob Hubbard".

It's an odd game, this one. I, Ball's family has been captured by the evil Terry Ball (groan) and I, who managed to escape, is in a hurry to get them back. What follows is something of a race against time, with guns!

GIANT ENEMY CRAB! Well, sort of.

You have to whizz up the screen before time runs out on the level. Making this more difficult are the peculiar obstacles in your way... some are merely that, whereas others are radioactive and deadly to the touch. You just bounce off the ordinary obstacles, but this can cause enough of a problem... bouncing into a deadly obstacle or enemy is not nice!

There are loads of constantly respawning enemies, although it's a few seconds before they become active and therefore threatening. It's best to shoot them at this point, but you have to be careful because your lasers can overheat. To help you out, discs can be picked up along the way, and these can contain all manner of impressive weaponry.

Taste the rainbow of fruit flavours, y'bastards.

With sixteen levels, lots of blasting action and a great Rob Hubbard soundtrack, I,Ball was well worth the £1.99 at the time. I enjoyed playing it again now... there are some niggles, with the collision detection on the obstacles being a bit ropey and causing more problems than necessary. It's still an entertaining and challenging blast, though.

Booty (ZX Spectrum)

Arrrr, Jim Lad (fer that be yer name)... yer on a ship that be occupied by naught but ghost pirates. But this ship is laden wi' booty... and it's yours fer the takin', if ye can outwit those scurvy knaves and scabbards, and empty the hold o' its goodies.

Arrrr... enough of that, Talk Like A Pirate Day is months away! Booty is a platform game where you play the put-upon cabin boy who, sick of his lot in life, decides to gather up as much of the pirates' loot as he can and, to use modern parlance for once, "do one".

Right, so... key 7 gets the gun, but lets that pirate out. OK...

Naturally, they're not about to give up their ill-gotten gains as easily as all that, and they walk the decks, cutlasses in hand, all ready to hand out a damn good thrashing to anyone wi' sticky fingers. Whoops, sorry.

It's a clever little game, is Booty. For all the pirates and their parrots deal instant death, the biggest obstacle is the layout of the ship. Some of the rooms are really tricky to negotiate, with keys having to be picked up in the right order to allow you access to certain rooms at the right times. Oh, and some of the treasure is booby-trapped...

OK, I've got my sea legs, but they never said I'd need my air legs too!

I first played Booty on a mate's Spectrum, and I liked it so much that it was one of the first games I bought when I got my Commodore 64. Pity, then, that the 64 version was wretched and a huge disappointment (and waste of pocket money!). There's no such problem with the Spectrum version... it was a cracking release from Firebird, and gave me a taxing but enjoyable hour or so when playing it again. Arrrr, that it did. Oh, bugger.

Thrust (Commodore 64)

Although I'll be a mixture of the great and the good and the weird and the wonderful today, it seems only right that I begin with a game that is considered to be perhaps the Godfather of budget games... Thrust.

I'll be honest... I hated Thrust when I first played it. It was keyboard only, for a start. We 64 owners were used to using joysticks to play games. And who wanted that big brown thing perched on their lap? Nope... hated it.

For some reason, though, I kept going back to it. Maybe with it being so highly rated I figured it was me that was wrong about it, maybe I just felt drawn back to it to at least try and complete a couple of levels... but eventually I was drawn in.

This doesn't look like it'll end well...

The premise is pretty simple sci-fi stuff... our planet is running out of energy, but it's known there is a system of planets that was mined to death years ago, and the plan is to send in a ship to retrieve a power pod from each planet, blow up its main generator thus setting off a world-destroying cataclysmic explosion, and then get out of there with the power pod before you're caught in the blast.

Naturally, it's not as easy as it sounds. And the real beauty of Thrust lies in the perfectly balanced gameplay. The controls are absolutely spot on, the inertia is absolutely spot on... when you connect to the power pod and try to lift it clear, you really feel the extra weight. And then you go spinning out of control and implode on a cavern wall. Well, I do.

OK... sooo... now what?

Just when you start getting good at it, the game turns into an utter bastard and will throw in a new element to keep you on the hop and further test your skills. Get a few levels into the game and you'll have to deal with reverse gravity. Get further still and the walls of the caverns become invisible. Yes, that's ridiculous... you can only see the walls when you activate your shield.

Thrust, unbelievably, is twenty-five years old this year. Quite often, home computer games from that time have aged badly, and aren't what you remember them to be. Thrust, however, is still as fresh, playable, demanding and entertaining as it ever was. It seems incredible that it only cost £1.99 when it was released. It's an absolute stone-cold classic, and if you've never played, get it downloaded right now. Better still, get onto eBay and buy the setup you need to play it for real. It's an amazing game.

*Thrust did not originate on the Commodore 64... in fact, it was a full-price release on the BBC computer. Amazing that it wasn't full-price when released on other systems.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

It's Budget Day!

Morning all, and welcome to Budget Day, where I will spend my day wearing rose-tinted glasses and posting about cheapo games from bygone days.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer can only DREAM of owning a budget bag like that.

So, what exactly is or was a budget game? These days, if a console game is released with a price tag of £19.99, it's considered a budget game. £19.99! My kids don't get anywhere near that much a week in pocket money... whose budget exactly is that?

Games originally cost upwards of £5.95... not too bad in today's prices, but still a fair sum to the kids of the early Eighties. It took companies like Mastertronic and Firebird to introduce a second tier of pricing that appealed to those with less disposable income. Firebird originally offered games for £2.50... much more affordable, as one or two weeks' pocket money would be enough to grab yourself some gaming goodness.

It was when Mastertronic introduced their classic £1.99 range that pocket money gaming really took off. No longer did you have to trail into the city (costing extra valuable money) in order to buy a game... you could find the distinctive Mastertronic packaging in newsagents, petrol stations... shops where kids would be dragged in by the mothers, and displayed prominently, in the chance that mam might be badgered into buying Little Johnny a gaming treat.

It really worked, too. Anybody with a computer owned at least one game with that classic black and red packaging. Firebird soon reduced their games to £1.99, with their own packaging standing out, too. They were happy times, with loads of new titles released, and kids buying them in droves.

The quality wasn't always there, of course. These companies, particularly in the beginning, were outlets for the bedroom coders. And whilst some of those programmers were good and would go on to greater things, if your game actually worked there was a fair chance it would be published, often to the disappointment of children across the country!

Things eventually spiralled out of control, with more and more budget companies springing up and Mastertronic and Firebird introducing range after range, at differing prices. The "golden era" of budget games had passed, probably in tandem with computer owners growing up. For a while, though, it had been one of the most exciting times in the growth of home gaming.

Friday, 18 March 2011

March 23rd is Budget Day!

Awwww, come on... that's boring!

It's going to be horrible, isn't it? Another Government stooge standing in front of a lot of rowdy blokes (and women), telling them how much they're going to screw everyone (but themselves) for in the coming year.

Well, I'm going to try and lighten things a little. All day (or as much as is humanly possible) it will be Budget Day with A Gamer Forever Voyaging. I am going to be playing and writing about budget games on the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. If you loved your Mastertronic and Firebird games, this will be the place to visit.

My intention is to do budget-sized articles... two or three paragraphs, so that I can fit more in. The intention is to cover lots of games so that I can bring many a nostalgic smile to faces. And in keeping with the saving money thing... I will be interspersing them with tweets of links to games that I consider to be good bargains. So if you don't follow me on Twitter, now might be a good time to start.

I'm looking forward to it. I've got a huge list of games picked out... let's see which ones I get to...

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Hyper-Thalamus! Wrap up.

Well, that's the end of my trawl through the entire Commodore 64 catalogue of Thalamus games. And a fun time it was, indeed, although it's fair to say it's taken me a bit longer than I'd hoped.

I had a fair idea of what I was coming into... after all, I'd played a number of the games extensively when they were originally released. But it's been a cool ride regardless, watching Thalamus transform from the arguable kings of the 64 shmup into purveyors of the cute and cuddly.

One thing that has been evident from this mini-odyssey was Thalamus' commitment to delivering a quality product. Even when there was the occasional misfire, there's no doubting that a lot of effort went into producing the best gaming experience possible. The games were always immaculately presented, and there were no sloppy graphics or rubbish music to be found anywhere.

There was controversy, as everyone knows. I'm not sure how much of that was warranted, though. I think, perhaps, some of the gaming mags of the time may have had bees in their bonnets about ZZAP! 64's ties to Thalamus, but I don't think they were guilty of overrating the Thalamus games because of this. Indeed, the release of Delta showed that the ZZAP! lads maintained their independence. Thalamus would have been counting on high review scores to continue the momentum from their first release... for ZZAP! to rate it as "lowly" as they did was testament to their reviewing integrity, in my opinion.

As is obvious from my scribblings, there have been more highs than lows. I think the highest point of all for me was the "discovery" of Hunter's Moon. Much like when I played The Sentinel (two years ago? Wow!), finally playing this properly and uncovering a wonderful game was, in itself, enough to make this exercise worthwhile. It was a shame that the Creatures games turned out as relative disappointments to me - but I'm armed with new knowledge, and I'm going to have another crack at Torture Trouble.

Thalamus was a software house that obviously valued quality above quantity. Their catalogue stands up against anyone else on the Commodore 64, even if the merits of some games are highly debatable among fans of the breadbin. But even the "worst" of their games weren't bad games... maybe just overly difficult or frustrating. They were around for longer than you might think... their fourteen Commodore 64 releases came over a span of seven years. They shone brighter than most before burning out, and as a result they're still remembered fondly. Rightfully so.

Nobby the Aardvark (Commodore 64)

And so, this trip through the Thalamus Commodore 64 catalogue comes to an end with their final release, Nobby the Aardvark. To be honest, I never really took any notice of this one... my 64, if not exactly gathering dust at this point was certainly very neglected, and I only really continued to buy ZZAP! 64 out of a sense of loyalty. Also, I couldn't be arsed to go to the newsagents to cancel it.

Awww... cute little kitty...BOMB! AAARRGH!

Nobby the Aardvark received a ZZAP! Gold Medal, which suggests it's a pretty decent game, although towards the end of the Commodore 64's life there's a suspicion that some games might have been overrated because there wasn't much else coming out. While researching this, I discovered it was programmed by Genesis Software, who had previously programmed the excellent Codemasters budget game, CJ's Elephant Antics. Hopes were indeed high.

Mmmmmm... ants... omnomnomnom.

The first time I played the game, that pedigree was evident. The graphic style and gameplay are not a million miles away from CJ, with a very cute and charasmatic main character, lots of humour and some fun and varied enemies.

The game features Nobby who, unsurprisingly given the game's title, is an aardvark. And he's not just any old aardvark... he appears to be a direct descendant of the aardvark from the Pink Panther cartoons (wink, wink). Nobby's having a peaceful day at home when suddenly a small colony of ants invade, pinch all his stuff and disappear down into their anthill. The blighters!

Big balloon... big balloon... bigger than the sun and moon...

Nobby gives chase, and manages to catch the ant that got stuck outside after he couldn't fit the fridge down there. After a bit of bargaining in which Nobby agrees not to eat the ant, the little fella reveals to Nobby that there is a place called Antopia, which is full of big, juicy ants, just there for the taking. Perhaps naively, Nobby believes him, lets the ant go and sets off to gorge himself silly.

Ah. That's going to cause a bit of a problem.

Nobby's quest is a lengthy one, which sees him walking, swimming and even hot air ballooning in his efforts to reach Antopia. That means there's a fair amount of variety to Nobby the Aardvark... something that is very welcome in a game of this type. How many platform games see you piloting a hot air balloon?

Awwww... cute little baby whales!

The aardvark is apparently a member of the cat family, as Nobby starts out with nine lives. He is, however, unarmed... something of a problem, as the road to Antopia is fraught with danger. Animals of all kinds take offence at the sight of Nobby, and will attack him as soon as he draws near. There are even planes that fly by, dropping bombs at our poor aardvark hero.

Luckily, there's a way for Nobby to fight back. Strewn around the landscap are anthills, and Nobby can use his long snout to suck up a load of ants, which can then be fired at enemy critters. That'll teach 'em! Unfortunately there are other hazards that are not animal in nature, and they must be avoided at all costs.

Aaaargh! Christ! Is it worth all this for an unlimited supply of ants?

Nobby the Aardvark is a very playable game. It's generally a lot of fun, and although it can be frustrating if you fall miles from a platform, but it's usually your own stupid fault when that happens and when you learn to take care you can usually get past anything. Some sections work better than others... the hot air balloon section (which reminds me of another of the developer's Commodore 64 games, New Zealand Story) is just a little too cramped to be entirely successful, for instance.

That said, there's not a single area that I didn't enjoy. Nobby the Aardvark is very polished, and even if the different sections take ideas from existing games, as a whole it's an entertaining game in its own right. It may have been the last time the Thalamus name graced the Commodore 64, but they maintained their high standards right to the end.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Winter Camp (Commodore 64)

Summer Camp must have done pretty well, because within a year John Ferrari and Thalamus had a sequel ready. And when you've already been to Summer Camp, where do you go next? Of course... Winter Camp!

Yay! I win! That means I actually get to play more of the game...

Yes, Maximus Mouse returned... a good thing if you ask me, because for all Summer Camp was rock hard and perhaps not as enjoyable to play as it might have been with the odd gameplay tweak, there's no denying that Maximus was a very appealing character and he deserved another runout. Maybe the balance would be a little more forgiving this time around?

Maximus gets a chilly reception on his first day...

Maximus has found himself to be something of a hero after the events of Summer Camp, when he saved the day (and the opening ceremony) by locating the camp's missing Stars and Stripes flag. As a reward, he's been offered the post of Ranger at Camp Nice 'N' Icey - Winter Camp!

I knew that bears shit in the woods, but nobody told me they threw snowballs in them!

Excited about this though Maximus is, once he's completed his assessment (a level where he must skate off, Track and Field-style (i.e. waggling), against three opponents to prove his worth), he notices that the camp is in danger! It's up to him to save the day, and the camp, by progressing through a number of fun-filled levels.

I thought it was only Atari games where you played with paddles?

The danger comes from a large bird, which can be spotted at the top of the screen. It's flying towards a nearby mountain top... nothing too dangerous there, you might think, but there's a pebble balanced precariously on top of the mountain, and if the bird dislodges it, it'll cause an avalanche that will destroy the camp! Maximus has to get to that pebble before the bird can, and make the camp safe for all to enjoy.

What a strange looking Creature...

There are some really entertaining levels in this game. The second one, which sees you skating from left-to-right across a frozen lake or river, reminded me for some reason of Park Patrol... and that can never be a bad thing. Complete that, and you'll have to defeat some pesky snowball-throwing bears, that hide in trees and pelt you when they think you're not looking. This level plays a bit like Operation Wolf... again, no bad thing.

Going Loco, down in... oh, hang on, I'm miles away from there...

Other levels include rafting up the river (even more like Park Patrol), an irritating Master of the Lamps-style musical notes game, featuring a guest appearance by Clyde Radcliffe, a Black Thunder/Loco/Suicide Express-type joystick-waggling skiing level, a variation on downhill skiing where you're trapped in a snowball (!) and a Donkey Kong rip-off.

Oh bum, I've missed the extra time flags. I'll never do this level now.

As you probably recall (you should, it was just a couple of posts ago!), I quite liked Summer Camp as a cartoony game, but felt it was just a bit too difficult. Winter Camp is also difficult, but feels more enjoyable to play, and the variety between levels is a factor here. The fact that it's not just straightforward platforming all the way contributes to the fun, and each event is enjoyable despite the difficulty, although the actual level objectives can be a bit indistinct. And again, the cuteness is very endearing.

Ooh, he's a big fella. Or, she's a big lass. Not sure how you tell with birds.

For all its irritations, I think that John Ferrari just about nailed it with this one. It's not the best game ever, and not terribly original, but it's well thought-out and achieves probably everything it set out to achieve, from the cartoon look through to most of the levels being fun, stand-alone levels rather than just mini-games. Sadly, when doing my research, I discovered that John died in 1996. Thanks to the Commodore 64 community, though, his games still live on. I'm glad I finally got around to playing this one, although it's for The Human Race that I'll always remember his name...

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Creatures 2: Torture Trouble (Commodore 64)

Creatures was a huge hit for Thalamus, getting pretty much universal praise. It was almost a given, then that it would spawn a sequel. What wasn't a given was the form it would take. The Rowlands brothers stripped back their original game and took a look at what worked best. And what worked best were the torture screens.

As you'll remember from the first game, the torture screens popped up occasionally throughout the game, once you'd gone far enough. In them, you had to solve a platforming puzzle in order to free your friend from a gruesome death. They were twisted, imaginative and funny. A whole game based around them is a great idea.

I've got a bit of a problem, though. The only working version I've got is an uncracked .tap file, which means that for the purposes of this write-up I've had to rely on my gameplaying skill.

Shoot that BASTAAARD there, jump up and kill that other BASTAAARD, then go down and GRAAAAAARRRRGHHHH!!

Turns out, I haven't got any.

I must have played the first screen over a hundred times (no, I'm not exaggerating), and I just can't do it. Twice, I've managed to get to the critter on the bike and cut him loose, only to be flattened by him. The other times, I've usually been killed by that bastard green thing. I keep getting my timing wrong, and the collision detection is accurate but very harsh.

So, Creatures 2: Torture Trouble. Great idea, and I'm sure it's very funny once you make progress. I'm just really frustrated with it, and I can't play it any more. If I can figure it out or if anyone can give me any tips, I might revisit it, but for now I'm done. Sorry.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Summer Camp (Commodore 64)

Following the release of Creatures, all Thalamus' games would feature cute and cuddly things. A far cry from the glory days of shoot 'em ups, true, but they still seemed to do OK. Next up from them was Summer Camp. Now, whilst doing my research I discovered that Summer Camp was programmed by John D. Ferrari. I remembered that name from one of my first ever Commodore 64 games... he programmed Mastertronic's budget release, The Human Race, which is a game I've always loved. You'll see more on that one soon... but that gave me more of an urge to play Summer Camp. I'd always presumed he never programmed anything else after that, I'd never seen his name on any other games!

This game's star is a real work of art!

Summer Camp is set in, erm, a summer camp. We don't really have them in the UK, it's more of an American tradition, where kids are sent during the school holidays so that parents can have a few weeks of peace and quiet. Anyway, this particular camp is about to have its opening ceremony. But what's an opening ceremony without the Stars and Stripes flag? Nothing, that's what! And as sheer bad luck would have it, the camp's flag has gone missing.

Those little helicopters are deadly! Luckily, Maximus' tail doubles up nicely...

Now, this could have happened for any number of reasons, and who knows who could be to blame? It could be anyone's fault, but Maximus Mouse, the wee rodenty fella that lives in the camp's grounds, just knows that the finger will be pointed in his direction. With that thought on his mind, he makes it his business to hunt down and replace the good ol' Stars and Stripes, ensuring that calamity is avoided at the opening ceremony.

After all this time, at last, confirmation of life on the moon.

Of course, and you knew this was coming... that's easier said than done. Maximus is not the only creature to inhabit the camp... there are all kinds of woodland critters crawling, leaping and flying around, and more besides. Most won't actively attack Maximus, but they will certainly get in his way, and touching them is a bit on the deadly side.

Boy, you look like a horse's ass.

Maximus' objective is a tricky one, and in order to be able to complete it he's going to need vehicles ro get about. Being a mouse, there aren't any handy, but there are boxes of parts lying around the camp. Maximus must leap and bound his way to the boxes and pick up all that are lying around a level, thus completing a blueprint and getting him a step further in his quest.

The bonus level. Step on the arrows in the right order to win.

All this leaping around is an energy-sapping business, but luckily there are food icons scattered around each level, which can be picked up to restore some energy. That's not their only use, though... this being a platform game, some things may be a little difficult to reach, until you realise you can jump on the food icons...

Oh good, a bar. You might need a drink at this point.

In fact, there are other little tricks to this game. For a while, I spent my time trying to avoid everything. And then I had a little thought, and decided to try something, and it was then that I discovered that you can ride on kites and balloons. Very helpful indeed! They don't kill you, but the fall from one of them might...

Let's go fly a kite, up to the heighest height.

It's at this point that you're thinking this is one of the best games ever. Sadly, I can't say that's the case. Although it has its fair share of plus points, there's one overwhelming negative... it's just too hard. I can imagine that back in the day I'd have spent ages playing it, and I might even have done OK at it, but with my self-imposed limit of an hour or so it was really hard to make much progress (without the trainer). If you can get the right weapon you stand more of a chance, and there are some fun pickups to be had, but a game that seems to be going well can come to an end frighteningly quickly.

Maximus has met his end. You see this screen a lot.

Summer Camp is a cute game with a real sense of character. The star of the game is endearing, and its filled with cute, cartoony touches (a great example is the way Maximus is redrawn after a death). But that cuteness is a velvet glove wrapped around an iron fist. It's just that bit too difficult, whereas if it had been toned down a bit we might have been looking at a really fun platformer. A visit to Summer Camp should be the time of your life... this one has just a bit too much hard labour.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Creatures (Commodore 64)

Right, from this point on we can say I haven't played any of the remaining Thalamus games on the Commodore 64. That might sound a bit like sacrilege... the Creatures games are very highly regarded, after all. But I've only ever dabbled with those two on emulators, and only for a few minutes. I didn't have the patience to stick with them, for all the praise they received in their day. I haven't really got much choice now!

I knew I shouldn't have had those extra hot chillies on my pizza...

Creatures is a platform game, with cute and cuddly characters being the order of the day. That makes the storyline all the more surprising when you read it... a race of creatures from the planet Blot have left their planet in search of hipness. They have renamed themselves Fuzzy Wuzzies (know nothing about being hip, this lot), but before they could find a place of their own, they crashed on Earth. Luckily they ended up on an almost-deserted island, which they renamed The Hippest Place In The Known Universe.

Nice day for a balloon ride. Let's blow him out of the sky.

Pity, then, that the only other inhabitants of the island were demons who, having been annoyed by the Fuzzies' presence invited them to a party, then promptly captured them and whisked them away to be tortured. The only one to escape this fate was one Clyde Radcliffe (see? Not hip), who was throwing up in the bushes when the capturing took place, and so it is he, under your guidance, who must embark upon the quest to free his brethren...

Clyde Radcliffe, intergalactic jet-setter and playboy.

There's a premise for you. And with that, off you go, traipsing through a very pretty and colourful world, hoping to locate and free your fellow Fuzzies. Clyde starts the game with the ability to spit arcing fireballs at anything in his path, and if they prove to be ineffective, he has a short-burst flamethrower that he can breathe at the demon enemies, which will usually cause them to explode after a while.

It might be dark in here, but there's an extra life to help...

That sounds like a fine array of weaponry as it is, but if you should get far enough into the game you'll encounter a fine-looking witch who will be all too keen to sell you an assortment of upgraded, more powerful armaments, which should be enough to see off any demon that dare stand in your way. There's a catch, though; the witch doesn't give these away for free. You'll have to collect as many of the special flashing creatures that you can find throughout the world. These can then be used to mix the potions you'll need for your nice, new destructive toys.

Why, yes there is, as it happens. Pity I don't seem to be in the mood...

Eventually, having battled past shedloads of cute little critters, you'll find one of your stricken friends. Hurrah! Unfortunately, they'll be on the wrong end of a fearsome torture device. Boo! And in true Penelope Pitstop fashion, your friend is not immediately executed in front of your eyes... the demos will at least give you a sporting chance to rescue the beleaguered Fuzzy. Should you fail to get there in time, though, then a terrible fate awaits...

Now, what the hell is going on here?

I found Creatures to be a little bit of an odd game. The main game plays quite ponderously, with Clyde being a little bit on the slow side, and this being compounded by the size of the levels. They're huge, and can take ages to get through. Luckily the gameplay is decent, but if I'm being honest, I didn't find it that spectacular or markedly above any of the Commodore 64's better platformers.

Yes, hurry! The poor thing is probably afraid of heights, or something.

The torture screens, on the other hand, are twisted, sick and very funny. They're also pretty difficult to figure out, at least for one who appears to have lost his 8-bit gaming ability. That's the good thing, though... even if you're not able to figure them out, you can have a good laugh at the horrific end that befalls your Fuzzy friend.

Ah. Too late. Looks like he was worried for a good reason, after all.

Creatures, for me, is a game of two halves. I can certainly see why it was so highly rated back in the day... it's extremely polished, as you'd expect of a Thalamus release, and you get a huge amount of game. The main core of the game, trudging through the level to get to your friend, looks lovely, and even the bad guys are really cute and endearing. It's a shame that I didn't find the gameplay as endearing, though... a bit of extra speed in Clyde's steps would certainly have helped. It's the lure of seeing the torture screens that keeps you playing. They're the real works of genius here, and elevate a game that I found relatively average into something pretty special.