Discussion: Bad games

Normally on this blog, I try to be positive. Although the Gaming Disasters series focuses on my bad gaming decisions (Nato Commander, Outrun and Alice in Videoland), I try to make this an occasional feature, rather than a regular one. Indeed, it’s noticeable that since this blog first started three years ago,  Gaming Disasters has been limited to one entry a year.

The danger this is that we become the equivalent of our own grandads. Instead  “When I were a lad, this was all fields around here”, we say “When I were a lad, all games were great.” Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. The games we remember today were (generally) the good games or the ones which we associate with positive memories. But let’s not kid ourselves, there were some real stinkers, too.

Just like today, the old 8 and 16 bit eras suffered from shovelware just like today’s formats do. There were plenty of lazy rip-offs, dull or badly programmed games and just plain old rubbish games. For every Last Ninja, there was a Last Mission; for every Bubble Bobble, a Trouble Bubble

So, for once, I’m going to give readers full licence to be negative and say what was the worst game you have ever played. Let’s be original here. We all know ET regularly gets the vote for worst game ever, so let’s try and steer clear of the obvious stuff and say what is the worst game you personally have ever played.

Just one rule: it must be a game from either the 8 or 16 bit generation of machines.

Add your thoughts in the Comments box below and let’s get this (bad game) party started!

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Joystick Roundup

Readers of old magazines such as Zzap!64 or Amiga Power will recall that every once in a while (usually when it was a quiet month for new releases) they ran features on the best joysticks. To keep up this tradition, I’ve decided to do my very own Top 5. I know. Whoo-hoo, right?

Anyway, to keep the subject manageable, I’ve imposed a couple of rules on myself:

  1. Joysticks only – none of these nasty, new-fangled controller things, thank you very much.
  2. I have to have owned the joysticks in question, not just used them at a friend’s house.

Given these restrictions my choices are effectively narrowed down to Commodore 64 and Amiga joysticks – the systems I owned when I was younger.

So here we go: counting down from 5 to 1, my top 5 joysticks.

5. Quickshot II

Joysticks - Quickshot II

I’ll be the first to admit that this was not the best joystick in the world. Whilst it was a perfectly adequate controller, it could be a little fragile. The micro-switches in particular had a tendency to break (making it a complete no-no for games like Daley Thompson’s Decathlon) and after very heavy use, the top fire button had a tendency to become unresponsive. It wasn’t the cheapest either, so when competitors became available, I quickly jumped ship and kept this as a reserve joystick (aka the crappy one you gave to friends for 2 players games).

It makes the top 5 for purely sentimental reasons – it was my first joystick. I can vividly remember pretending I was a fighter pilot even as I was waiting for my very first C64 game to load and it brings back a lot of fond memories. For that reason, it just scrapes into the Top 5.

4. The Little Brown Joystick Whose Name I Can’t Remember.

Joysticks - The Small Brown One

Mmmm. This blog post is going well isn’t it? Only two entries in and already I’ve included a stick I’ve admitted wasn’t that great and now one I can’t even remember the name of.

This was a joystick that my mate bought me for my birthday from his mum’s catalogue. All I can remember is that it was quite small with s square, brown based. The stick itself was black and fairly small (around the same size as the old Atari joystick but much thinner). It looked a bit like the one in the picture, but that’s not exactly right.

Even though my memory is failing me as to its name, it fully deserves its place in this Top 5 because it was a cracking little joystick. The square base meant it fitted firmly in the palm of your hand, whilst the stick itself was incredibly responsive. Although there was a significant amount of travel (the old technical term Zzap! used to use, and which I’m sticking with), it responded to your movements very quickly. The big travel distance actually made it ideal for games like Decathlon or Summer Games as you could waggle furiously without too much risk of destroying it. It also had the advantage of being very cheap (which I suspect is the attraction it held for my mate when he bought it for me).

If anyone knows which stick I’m talking about, despite my very vague description, do let me know.

3. The Bug

Joysticks - Bug

I didn’t come across this one until I owned a C64 for a second time, but it quickly established itself as a favourite.

The bug was certainly an odd looking joystick. It was very small, had strange bulges everywhere (making it look like a bit like a bug’s face, hence the name), a tiny stick (stop it, madam) and an oddly-placed fire button.

Despite these seeming disadvantages, the Bug was a brilliant joystick. Like The Little Brown Joystick Whose Name I Can’t Remember, its small size meant that it was easy and comfortable to hold for prolonged gaming periods. The almost elliptical shape meant that it fitted in the palm even better than The Little Brown Joystick Whose Name I Can’t Remember (after all, who has square palms?) and I found it perfect for shoot-em-ups in particular.

I may have discovered The Bug late, but I quickly became a fan.

2. Powerplay Cruiser

Joysticks - Cruiser black

This was a somewhat divisive joystick, but I was firmly in the “love it” camp. With its rounded base and big round knob at the top of the stick (I said STOP IT, MADAM), it wasn’t much to look at, but it worked well. The stick felt tight and responsive and there was minimal travel, making it ideal for games needing quick reactions. Unlike many joysticks, it came in a choice of colours (black remained my favourite – hey I was a teenager – but gaudier options were available) and it was cheap. Extended use did result in a tendency for the case to crack, but this was just your computer’s way of telling you it was time to treat it to a new joystick.

The main downside was the industrial strength suckers that sat on the base. During lengthier periods, it could become uncomfortable to hold, meaning you had to put it down onto a hard surface to continue playing. Once you did, the suckers stuck to it like a limpet fighting the tide and your only hope of ever removing it was to call Arnold Schwarzenegger and ask him to pop round to help you out. Arnie was such a frequent visitor to our house, he had his own mug and everything*

AND THE WINNER IS…

 

1. ZipStick

Joysticks - Zipstick

With its black plastic futuristic looking casing (look – it was the 1980s, EVERYTHING looked futuristic) and square yellow buttons, the ZipStick was certainly a joystick that screamed “look at me”. Thankfully, it backed up these good looks in the game playing arena, proving robust, responsive and comfortable. In fact, it was so durable, I can’t remember ever busting a ZipStick

So the Mighty ZipStick is officially crowned as RetroReactiv8’s Joystick of Champions.

The Conclusion Bit

Before you all go away and do something far more important, I just want to give an honourable mention to the old Atari VCS joystick. This didn’t make it into the final cut because a) I never owned an Atari (although I did play one extensively at my friend’s house) and b) it was a horrible joystick.

Anyone who has ever used one will remember how stiff (Madam, I am going to have to ask you to leave) and unresponsive it could be. After only a few games, your hands would be aching so much that you were convinced they would drop off, yet you still kept playing, trying to wrestle this unwieldy thing to move a bunch of pixels in the right direction.

It gets an honourable mention for the same reason the QuickShot II made the cut. This was the very first joystick I ever used in my whole life and so was my gateway to gaming. It might have been a horrible piece of kit, long surpassed in terms of design, comfort, user-friendliness and just about everything else, but it was iconic and  I still get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I see one.

Just so long as you don’t actually make me use it…

 

* May not actually have happened

Bart vs The Space Mutants [Amiga] Review

Bart vs Space Mutants - cover

This review is going to be something a little different. Often on this blog, I’ve concentrated on retro games that I really love or games that I really hate. This time around, it’s a game that, on the whole, I feel a bit “meh” about, but one which is also associated with an important milestone in my personal gaming history.

Step forward Bart vs The Space Mutants.

The game was originally released in 1991 round about the time when the popularity of The Simpsons was really exploding. I remember that summer well – it seemed you couldn’t move without bumping into a piece of Simpsons-branded merchandise or promotion.

Never ones to miss cashing in on a craze it was, of course, Ocean who picked up the rights to distribute a game (developed by Acclaim) in the UK. The plot saw the evil slimy space aliens plotting to take over Springfield by taking over the bodies of some of its residents. Needless to say, only Bart realizes what was happening, and it’s left to him to sort it all out.

The game itself wasn’t actually that great. Whilst it was fun to explore different bits of Springfield and bump into characters from the TV show, the gameplay wasn’t any great shakes. It was essentially a bog standard puzzle/platform game, requiring you to explore Springfield to find and use various items, whilst avoiding. It was all pretty derivative stuff and (particularly looking back), in terms of both gameplay and in-game visuals, still feels firmly rooted in the 8 bit era, despite bring a 16 bit game.

It was also incredibly difficult. Again reflecting that 8 bit mentality, jumps had to be pixel perfect to avoid bumping into aliens – something not helped by the controls which were a little tricky to get to grips with and use when you were under pressure. The graphics didn’t help either; despite the wider palette available to 16 bit artists, there were times when it was difficult to distinguish background items (which were harmless) from foreground ones (which might not be), resulting in many a frustrating death.

This high difficulty level, combined with the awkward controls and mediocre gameplay, didn’t actually make for a particularly enjoyable gaming experience. In fact, I honestly don’t think that I ever managed to get past Level 1 – partly because of my own limited gaming skill, partly because there was no real incentive to keep trying.

So if the game was mediocre at best, why do I have fond memories of it?

Well, there are two reasons. Firstly, the introduction was, quite simply, stunning. If the game itself was 8 bit in nature, the introduction showcased the power of the 16 bit machines. It was, essentially, a short, cartoon-quality animation that set the background to the game and saw Bart uncovering the evil aliens’ plot. The quality of this intro was outstanding and still looks impressive today. I was used to the odd static cut-screen being used to advance the story, but this was something else – a proper, fully animated cartoon – on an Amiga! The first time I saw it, my jaw was officially dropped and my mind well and truly boggled.

Which brings us on to the second reason why I have fond memories of the game. I, like many people, got hold of the game as part of the Cartoon Classics pack when I bought my very first Amiga. So whilst it might not have been the best game I ever had, it was one of the very first. It might have been quickly consigned to the “rarely played” pile as my Amiga collection grew, but I retained that strong emotional connection, because of the happy memories of new computer ownership associated with it. It also came in handy whenever I wanted to demonstrate how impressive the Amiga was – if friends or family doubted its power, you could whip out The Simpsons, insert Disk 1 and show them that introduction to remove all doubts (just make sure you switch the machine off again before they had chance to sit down and play the game!).

So, whilst Bart vs The Space Mutants wasn’t a great game, for me (and many others), it was the bridge to the new and exciting world of 16 bit computers and for that reason alone, it deserves to be remembered.

 

 

KikStart II (Commodore 64 Review)

kik-start_2_01

Retro gamers of a certain age are likely to recall with some fondness Kick Start (or Junior Kick Start for younger competitors) which was often a staple of the TV schedules during the long summer holidays. The programme was essentially an obstacle course for motorbikes, with the rider who completed the course in the fastest time declared the winner. It also had a jaunty little theme tune which you’re probably now singing even as you read this.

Shaun Southern’s KikStart series, on the other hand was completely different. The game was essentially an obstacle course for motorbikes, with the person who completed the course in the fastest time declared the winner. It also had a jaunty little theme tune which you’re probably now singing even as you read this.

Oh, who am I trying to kid? The KikStart games were a pretty blatant rip-off of the TV series. Barring a copyright-infringement dodging dropped c and missing space, it’s pretty clear where Shaun Southern took his inspiration from. But then again, when the game is as good as this, who cares?

The original KikStart was decent enough, but it’s sequel was simply superb. Look past the fairly bland graphics and pretty basic sound and you found a game that was perfectly designed, incredibly addictive and immense fun to play – especially if you roped in a friend and tried the game’s two-player mode.

In one sense, the game was relatively simply – you drove your motorbike along the screen from left to right, across the various obstacles to the finish line. Obstacles included jumps, balance beams and logs which you needed to bunny hop across. The whole thing was done against the clock, racing against either a computer controlled or human competitor the winner the one who reached the winning post in the fastest time.

That all sounds pretty simple right? Just rev the throttle up to maximum and hurtle your way along the course as fast as possible, surely? Wrong. And don’t call me Shirley. The beauty (and depth) of the game came from the fact that the various obstacles were beautifully implemented, making the game a perfect balance between speed and patience, risk and reward. Take some obstacles too quickly and you would fall off your bike; take some too slowly and… you guessed it, you’d fall off your bike. Falling off attracted a time penalty, meaning your chances of winning were reduced. You needed to judge exactly how fast you could safely take each obstacle (and some of the obstacles could be very precise), keep an eye on how your opponent was doing and (since obstacles often came thick and fast) be aware of what was coming up next so that you could increase/reduce your speed accordingly.

A friend and I played this endlessly over the Summer of ‘87. We never got bored of it and, in the end, got really good at it, knowing exactly what speed to take the various obstacles for that maximum balance between speed and safety. We both got so good that we reached the stage where the computer opponent was totally unable to beat us. Yet still the competitive element of trying to beat each other kept us coming back. Once we’d got so good at that that we would literally finish courses within a tenth of second of each other, there was always the challenge of trying to beat the best time recorded on each course (and, of course, we diligently recorded all the best times in a little book, together with who had achieved them). When it came to KikStart II, the word “addictive” found a new definition in that summer of ’87.

Even when you mastered the 24 in-built courses, the game still had one final trick up its sleeve in the form of a course designer which allowed you to create and save your own courses. This was brilliantly simple to use, although (in my experience) merely highlighted how difficult it actually was to design a course which was challenging, yet playable and fun – yet more evidence of how well-designed the supplied courses were.

And the best thing of all? KikStart II was released on the Mastertronic label and cost a paltry £1.99. For an original game (albeit a sequel), this was an absolute steal. How the game wasn’t awarded a Zzap! Sizzler is beyond me (it scored 86% in the September 1987 issue). However, I’m sure that Shaun Southern will be more than consoled by the fact that, almost 30 years after its release, it made its way into RetroReactiv8’s coveted (by me at least!) Top Ten Commodore 64 games!

My personal franchise failures

For those of you that don’t read it, the latest edition of Retro Gamer magazine here in the UK had a massive, 16-page feature celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Final Fantasy series.

Whilst the article was as well-researched and written as most of Retro Gamer’s articles, this one really held little interest for me, as I’ve never played a Final Fantasy game – I don’t enjoy RPGs and so the series has never appealed to me.

The article did get me thinking, though, about how many successful, “classic” retro gaming series I’ve not actually played, and there are some pretty big names in there. I’ve already confessed to barely playing any Mario games and the same is true for Sonic. Although I have played both the original and its sequel via emulation, the only Sonic game I’ve played on original hardware is Sonic Colours on the DS.

Similarly, The Otaku Judge recently posted an (as always) excellent review of the new Castlevania TV series, and I had to confess that, once again, I’d never actually played a Castlevania title.

When I stopped to think about it, the list grew longer: I’ve never played an F-Zero game or a Zelda title; Altered Beast and Eternal Champions mostly passed me by. I’ve played the odd bit of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, but not a massive amount; MegaMan and BomberMan mostly remain strangers to me and so on. How on earth can I call myself a retro gamer when I have little or no experience of all these classic franchises?

Then it dawned on me how much your choice (or possibly more accurately, your parents’ choice!) of console or computer can impact on what you perceive as “retro games”. Of course, all the games mentioned above are retro games and fondly remembered by fans, but they are not titles that would spring to my mind if someone asked me to name some great old titles. Personally (and it’s clear if you look back at this blog’s content) my definition of a “retro game” tends to focus on Commodore 64 and Amiga titles, because these were the computers I had growing up.

Sure, with the advent of emulation, there’s really no excuse for not having played any of these games, but the truth is I often find emulation to be a bit unreliable, fiddly to get up and running properly and, frankly, often not worth the effort it takes. Whilst I’m not a purist, I do generally prefer playing on the original hardware because (providing you have the funds!) since it tends to produce a more reliable experience. And because (sadly), I have pretty limited funds, I tend to stick to collecting platforms and games that I already know, rather than branching out into new and (for me) untried areas.

So come on, time to ‘fess up. I’ve admitted to my shameful failings so now it’s your turn. What classic retro franchises have you never (or hardly ever) played?

Bruce Lee (Commodore 64) review

 

Blimey. It’s been a while since I added anything to this blog, hasn’t it? Don’t worry, RetroReactiv8 is still alive and kicking – it’s just that every time I sit down to try and write something normal life gets in the way…

Anyway, let’s get things back on track with a review of Bruce Lee on the Commodore 64.

Bruce Lee - cover

This early DataSoft game narrowly missed out on a place in my Top 10 Commodore 64 games a while back, and I felt a bit guilty about it. So now it’s time to redress the balance by giving it the full review treatment.

Bruce Lee is an early (and very successful) example of using a well-known name to sell a game. Happily, (unlike many similar examples), it’s a great game with a recognisable name attached, rather than a recognisable name linked to a rubbish game.

At heart, Bruce Lee is a platform game with some fighting elements thrown in. Bruce must negotiate his way across a series of screens, collecting the lanterns that are scattered around each level and avoiding the various hazards that will kill him if he comes into contact with them. Bruce is pursued by a black-clad Ninja and a green (bad sushi?) Sumo wrestler (which, for some reason, myself and a friend christened Desmond Littlefellow and (you guessed it) Desmond Bigfellow. They did actually both have proper names, but this is what we always called them, so it’s how I’ll be referring to them throughout this review).

The two Desmonds will pursue Bruce across the level and attempt to beat him up. Although you can outrun them (getting to the exit on a particular screen resets their starting position for the next level), you might prefer to teach them a lesson and fight them, since Bruce is pretty handy with his fists (and his feet), and more than capable of looking after himself.

Although both can be equally fatal to Bruce, Desmond and Desmond have distinctive fighting styles, making them challenging in different ways. Desmond Littlefellow is quick and agile, with a big stick that increases his range. However, his attacks are weaker and do a little less damage. Desmond Bigfellow is slower and heavier, but Bruce can withstand fewer hits before dying.

Like much else in the game, once you get the hang of the fighting, it’s pretty easy to make sure you rarely die at the Desmonds’ hands, but killing them never becomes dull. Indeed, the game should be applauded for the imaginative ways you can kill your opponents and there’s a sick sense of satisfaction to be derived from standing deliberately just out of range and luring them into a trap (such as an exploding firework) to dispatch them in new and interesting ways!

The platform elements are really well-designed. New hazards are gradually introduced (such as fireworks that explode a second after you have run over them or electrified areas where runs have to be timed right to get past). This gives a real sense of progress and achievement. Although there’s a reasonable level of precision needed, the game doesn’t feature the pixel-perfect jumping that made games like Manic Miner so hard. As such, I’ve always found it a lot more fun to play. With practice, you really start to make progress and levels become fun (leaving you free to do the above-mentioned taunting and luring). When you’ve finished the game, it’s an ideal candidate for a speed run, if that’s your thing, and the whole thing has a tremendous amount of replay value.

Bruce Lee - start

The graphics do an excellent job of creating and maintaining an appropriate and convincing setting and doing homage to a martial arts icon. Bruce Lee is instantly recognisable and fluidly animated. He moves with a real sense of purpose and style and is fast and agile, thus capturing the character extremely well. The two Desmonds are also well-animated, whilst the varied (and impressively big for its day) scenery definitely creates an oriental atmosphere.

Audio is similarly limited, but effective. The only music of note is on the game’s title screen, but it’s a brilliant piece that again adds to the oriental setting. The lack of in-game music doesn’t prove to be an issue at all, because whilst the sound effects are relatively sparse, they really add to the game. In fact, I genuinely think constant in-game music would have had a detrimental impact on the overall atmosphere and it’s better off without.

It’s interesting to play Bruce Lee again after first experiencing it as a child. I often bemoan my lack of gaming prowess, particularly as I get older and my reflexes get even worse. However, back in the 80s I really can’t remember ever beating Bruce Lee – something which, frankly, I’m astounded at now. Because whilst the game offers some challenge, once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s actually pretty easy to beat. I can now beat it every single time I play and on a couple of occasions have even got close to making it all the way through without losing a life. That is unheard of for me, so how I failed to beat it as a kid is beyond me.

Anyhow, despite missing out on a place in my C64 Top 10 games, justice has finally been done for Bruce Lee in the form of a complete review. The man was a martial arts legend and a Commodore 64 gaming legend. Not bad for someone who had been dead for over 10 years by the time this game was released.

Is it just me? Pixel art vs. modern graphics

Given that I run a retro gaming blog, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that I like old games. Occasionally, I try to work out exactly what is that I find so appealing about them that I’d rather play a 30 year old game than a more modern one.

There are lots of things that appeal, but one of them is the artwork. You might think I’m insane, preferring the block, limited palette graphics of older games to the photorealistic graphics of modern consoles, but there is just something about pixel art that I find appealing. Indeed, it’s no co-incidence that my interest in modern gaming started to diminish around the time that sprites and pixel art were making way for polygons and 3D images.

I’m not trying to claim that all 80s games were works of art. Before the days of the dedicated graphic artist, there were plenty of games with some pretty basic/dodgy graphics. However, when you got to see the output of a truly talented artist, the results could be jaw-dropping. As the 8 and 16 bit eras progressed, so programmers and artists became ever more proficient in squeezing the last ounce of memory out of the machines, resulting in better and better graphics. Just take a look at System 3’s The Last Ninja (1987) – such stunning, detailed graphics would have been thought impossible just a few years earlier. Yet in the hands of a group of talented artists and programmers, the game was beautiful to look at, as well as superb to play. Of course, there were some games that relied a little too much on the graphics to sell and were little more than tech demos with a shallow game attached (Saucer Attack was one), but that doesn’t diminish the quality or importance of the artwork.

There was a real art (pun intended!) to drawing sprites and pixel art. The memory and hardware constraints of the machines meant that every pixel and every byte counted. Artists had to be really efficient in the way that they drew. Graphics might have been small and blocky, but they oozed character. You could even argue that what was left out was just as important as was included. Artists became very clever at giving sprites sufficient definition to make it clear what they were, whilst leaving the player’s imagination to fill in some of the detail.

As consoles and computers have got more powerful, the quality, size and scale of graphics have obviously improved massively. Whole cities and worlds can now be visualised… and yet, I still find basic pixel art can create a better atmosphere and give games a unique look and feel.

This is partly because modern games leave little to the imagination. Because hardware is now so powerful, graphics can be very precise and very detailed. There’s no need for the player to fill in any blanks, because everything is up there on screen. With sprites and pixel art, you had to do this yourself and this somehow made the characters more personal to you.

Similarly, no matter how powerful modern machines are, they still can’t quite create completely convincing images of people. There is always something slightly odd about them – whether that’s facial textures, body movement or lip syncing. For me, this means that they sometimes jar with the rest of the world that’s been created or fail to convince me that they are real. Again, 8 and 16 bit sprites couldn’t aspire to this photo-realism – they were what they were and this meant they fitted into gaming environments much better in many ways.

I’m sure I’d be shot down in most art circles for this, but I’d argue that pixel art and sprites deserve to be viewed in the same light as other works of art. It might be drawn using a very different medium or and have a very different purpose to “normal art”, but it still takes a really skilful artist to create graphics that look good, and provoke a genuine emotional attachment. Isn’t that what all great works of art do? In their own medium, I’d argue that great graphic artists were creating real works of art in just the same way that Constable or Picasso did.

It’s surely no co-incidence that recent years have seen a resurgence in this type of artwork and retro-styled games are starting to make a comeback. Clearly, I’m not the only one who thinks like this.