Top 10 Adventure Games Part 1

Introduction

After my (relatively) recent blog posts listing my top C64 games (Part 1 and Part 2) from each year I owned the machine, regular reader Catflap noted the absence of any adventure games. This was a strange omission (and one I was aware of when compiling the list), since adventure games have always been one of my favourite genres. Oddly, looking back on the rest of my blog, the genre is also seriously underrepresented.

It’s time to put that right with this – the first of two posts listing my top 10 adventure games, across any platform I’ve owned. And, in an attempt to stir up further controversy, I’ve even ranked them this time. Part 1 will countdown from 10-6, whilst Part 2 will feature my Top 5. So now, you can not only argue about which games I’ve included or missed, you can also call me a fool for the order I’ve put them in!

Off we go – let the arguments begin!

10. Twin Kingdom Valley (Commodore 64)

Twin Kingdom Valley cover

This is partly here for nostalgia reasons. It was the very first adventure game I ever played and so effectively was my gateway to the genre. I never really got anywhere with the game and can vividly remember dying many, many times or getting hopelessly lost in the tunnels beneath one of the early locations (with a lamp that rapidly ran out of oil, plunging you into darkness). Despite these frustrations, there was something about it that hooked me from the start and kept me coming back for more. If I ever progressed further than about 2% into the game, I’d be amazed, but it was a great game and the one that began my lifelong love of adventure games.

9. Gremlins (Commodore 64)

Gremlins

At a time when most licenses were converted into lazy platform games, Gremlins dared to try something different – turning it into a graphic adventure. The game’s plot followed the film pretty closely taking in its major locations and set pieces, whilst adding in additional puzzles and elements to stop it becoming too easy. The graphics and parser were pretty rudimentary, but they captured the spirit of the film… and how can you not love a game where you get to recreate the memorable Gremlin-in-a-blender and Gremlin-in-a-microwave scenes?

8. The Boggit (Commodore 64)

The Boggit

Back in the 80s, Delta 4 produced a number of spoof adventures, written using The Quill game creation software. The Boggit (no prizes for guessing which famous book was being spoofed) was easily my favourite. Sure, much of the humour might have been a bit schoolboy-ish, but hey, I WAS a schoolboy when I first played it and I found it pretty funny. If it had just been a pastiche, there’s no way The Boggit would have made it onto this list. However, it was also a pretty good adventure game in its own right, with some challenging puzzles complementing the silly sense of humour.

7. Seabase Delta (Commodore 64)

SeaBase Delta cassett

This is one of the few adventure games which has featured previously in this blog. Released as a budget title by Firebird, it was a cracker that kept me going for weeks. Its real strength was a simple plot that really had a sense of progression and a finely balanced difficulty level which (bubble gum/chicken puzzle aside) meant that I never experienced the same level of frustration I often came across in other adventures when you hit a puzzle that you just couldn’t solve. It’s a shame it was let down by such a poor ending, but that’s not enough to deny it a well-earned place on this list.

6. The Secret of Monkey Island (Amiga/PC)

Monkey Island

Here’s where the controversy really starts. I’m sure a lot of people would expect to see this a lot higher up the list. Indeed, I suspect that it would make most people’s top 3 at least. Controversially, thought, it’s not even going to be my most highly rated LucasArts game!

Monkey Island does, of course, deserve to be on the list. It’s a brilliantly constructed, bizarre and funny take on the pirate adventure. I still annoy my wife by occasionally shouting out “I’m Guybrush Threepwood – Mighty Pirate!” and surely there is no-one in the world that doesn’t enjoy the inspired Insult Swordfighting. The characters were fantastic, the music and effects impressive and the whole thing felt like a real step-up from the old 8 bit adventures. The reason that it doesn’t score more highly is because I’ve always felt that the bizarre humour can get in the way of the actual game, resulting in a some obtuse and frustrating puzzles that reduced you to doing anything you could possibly think of, in the hopes of randomly hitting on the right solution (or, more likely in my case, resorting to magazine hints or a walkthru’).

 

End of Part 1

So, on that bombshell, let’s end Part 1 and wait for the dust to settle before we return with Part 2.

(By the way: if anyone can guess which LucasArts game finishes higher than Monkey Island, you will win the free gift of having our genius acknowledged in the next post. I know. What more could you wish for?)

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C64 Games of the Year Part 2: 1987-1992

Introduction

Now the dust has settled after the controversy of Part 1, here’s the final part in my run down of top C64 games from 1982-1991.

Moving into the second part of the decade of the machine’s life, the number of quality releases declined significantly as budget titles started to come to dominate. To off-set that, though, the quality of the best games increased dramatically, as programmers really understood how to get the best out of the machine.

1987

1987 was one of the hardest years to pick the winning games. Airborne Ranger, Pirates! and Barbarian all narrowly missed out on places, as they were pipped to the post by the following.

Honourable mention

California Games: The pinnacle of Epyx’s Games series (discuss!). They took everything they had learned from Summer Games and Winter Games (impressive graphics, short events, easy-to-learn controls) and applied it to this collection of slightly more obscure sports. I’d never heard of it before I played this title, but I quickly became master of the hackey sack!

Kikstart II: I might have bemoaned the growth of budget games in the introduction, but there were some real gems that easily beat many full-price offerings. Shaun Southern’s KikStart II was one. Offering a computerised spin on the BBC TV series of (almost) the same name, it had two player split screen racing, loads of built-in courses and a course creator – all for just £2. What a bargain!

Runner up: The Last Ninja

From a gameplay perspective, System 3’s game might not have offered much new, but it felt like a game changer in all other regards. The graphics were stunning, the animation fluid and the music incredible. This was a game that really pushed the boundaries of what the C64 could handle. The sequel might arguably have been a better game, but it’s always the original that sticks in my mind.

Winner: Bubble Bobble

Bubble Bobble title

In any other year, The Last Ninja would have taken the crown but it was unfortunate to be released in the same year as Bubble Bobble. Software Creations managed to cram a virtually arcade perfect conversion into the C64. Whilst not as graphically impressive as the Last Ninja, it offered much more addictive game play and for me that will always win out over impressive presentation. Brilliantly designed and superbly executed, this would be a strong contender for my best C64 game EVER, never mind just 1987.

1988

Honourable mention:

Barbarian II: Palace Software’s hack and slash original narrowly missed out on a place in 1987, so it’s time to redress that. Whilst many people disagree, I’ve always had a soft spot for the sequel. The exploration-based game play added more variety, whilst the various monsters (which could dispatch the unwary Barbarian/Barbarianette(?!) in impressively gory fashion) made for a less repetitive game. I wouldn’t say the sequel is better than the original but, judged on its own merits, it’s as good.

The Shoot em Up Construction Kit (SEUCK): I’ve written in another post about how I always longed to program my own games, but suffered from a crippling lack of brains/talent/knowledge/time. Sensible Software’s sublime SEUCK gave me the tools to create my very own, commercial quality shoot em ups. Of course, it never happened, but that was my fault, not SEUCK’s, and I still had a lot of fun messing around with it. The 4 decent games written and supplied with SEUCK as part of the package showed what could be done in capable hands.

The downside was that, once released, it led to poor quality SEUCK-authored games flooding the market. Bad SEUCK games became as ubiquitous as budget titles.

Runner Up: Star Wars

The original arcade machine was released in 1983, so why the hell did we have to wait 5 years for this home conversion? Still, at least it was worth the wait: the game perfectly captured the feel of both the arcade game and the film and really made you feel like you were Luke Skywalker. OK, so the gameplay could slow down a little at times (the C64 was never the best at vector graphics) and the gameplay could become repetitive, but it was still a belter.

Winner: Armalyte

armalyte_(kixx) (1)

Continuing the trend for 1988, another shoot em up takes top spot. Armalyte was clearly inspired by R-Type, but it remained very much its own game. Visually and aurally impressive, challenging and utterly addictive, it was a brilliant example of how well the C64 did shoot em ups and remains one of my favourite examples of the genre to this day.

1989

This is where it starts to get tougher as developers and gamers began to drift towards the 16 bits and new games started to dry up. There will still some great games, though.

Honourable mention

Speedball: The sequel was the more rounded game, but the original was a great title in its own right. Many games had tried to crack the futuristic violent sports genre, but few had got it right. Speedball did, nailing the balance between violence and sport– taking a player out with a heavy tackle was just as satisfying as scoring a goal.

The Untouchables: Ocean were often criticised for applying the same formula to their film licenses, but when it worked as well as this, who cares? The Untouchables blended several different genres (platform game, chase game, Operation Wolf-style shooter) into a series of entertaining mini games. Although Batman the Movie was released the same year, this was the better game, as it relied less on flashy presentation and was more suited to the 8 bits.

Runner up: Project Firestart

One of the earliest examples I played of what would become known as Survival Horror. Project Firestart saw you the lone survivor of spaceship where something sinister had happened. All the crew were dead and you had to find out why and avoid the same fate. Oozing atmosphere, this was a cracking game which never quite got the accolades it deserved due to its relatively late, low profile release.

Winner: Turbo Outrun

Turbo Outrun

After the massive disappointment of US Gold’s Outrun conversion, Probe Software’s Turbo Outrun set the record straight. Taking part in an illegal road race across America, you had to finish the stages within tight time limits, whilst escaping from cops trying to do you for speeding. A blistering racing game with the exhilarating sense of speed that the original conversion lacked, combined with a superb soundtrack from Jeroen Tel. The cassette version a multi-load nightmare, but the disk version was fantastic.

1990

Another tough year. Whilst only a small number of games (8) made the shortlist, they were all quality releases. In the end, a somewhat eclectic mix of titles that made it through to the final 4.

Honourable mentions:

International 3D Tennis: Using wireframe graphics for a tennis game wasn’t the most obvious design decision, but once you got used to the slightly odd, sparse aesthetics, it worked surprisingly well. Sensible Software’s attempt to do for tennis what they’d already done for football wasn’t quite as successful, but they still served up a fun, challenging and addictive game that (like many games) really took off when played against a friend.

Sport of Kings:  A real leftfield choice, especially since I’ve never placed a bet on a horse in my life! Yet, this horse betting simulator from Mastertronic was surprisingly good fun (with the added bonus that you didn’t lose any real money!). As in real life, you had to look at the form, assess the track and decide whether you wanted to bet on an outright win or a place before deciding how much money you were prepared to risk. The algorithms behind the results were pretty simple by today’s standards, but myself and a friend wiled away many happy hours risking our virtual cash.

Runner up: Die Hard

A superb take on the film saw you roaming the corridors of Nakatomi Plaza trying to free the hostages, kill the bad guys and stay alive. It would have been so easy to turn this into a routine Contra-style shoot em up but the developers took a much more thoughtful approach, where stealth would get you far further than blasting. It was as tough as old boots – you only got one life (albeit measured by a health bar, rather than a single shot proving fatal), but (just like the film), you felt a real sense of achievement every time you got that little bit further.

Winner: Rainbow Islands

Rainbow Islands title

There could only be one winner for 1990. This Bubble Bobble sequel, programmed by Graftgold, was, like its predecessor, not arcade perfect, was pretty damn close. The bright colours, jaunty tune and cutesy enemies could have made for a vomit-inducing experience, but the excellent, well balanced gameplay was the perfect antidote.

1991

By the time 1991 rolled around, I was buying fewer and fewer games. I had my eye on upgrading to an Amiga, so all my spare cash was set aside for that. As such, there’s just one title makes my list for 1991, so by default it’s also the winner.

Winner: Speedball II

speedball_2

The original got an honourable mention back in 1989, but the sequel does even better. It took the first game and improved it: more polished, more fun, more challenging. The expanded teams, player rosters and competitions added to the challenge, whilst recapturing everything that was so good about the original.

1992

In this, the last year that I owned my C64, just two games make the shortlist and it was so hard to separate them that they both end up joint winners. A fitting way perhaps to end my ownership of a machine that produced so many great games.

Joint winners

Creatures 2

creatures_2

The only reason Creatures didn’t feature in 1990 was because I knew it would get a second chance later. Creatures 2 took the really good bits from the first game (particularly the torture screens) and added more whilst ironing out a few of the kinks that sometimes made the original frustrating. The supremely talented Rowland Brothers crafted a brilliant platform game with graphics to match any of the much-vaunted console platformers of the day.

First Samurai

first_samurai_thumb

Another great game from some of the talented team behind The Last Ninja (hence the pun-title). Sales might not have been as good as the Amiga counterpart, but that didn’t reduce the quality of this brilliant, challenging platform game that looked and sounded incredible on what was by now pretty ancient hardware.

So, there you go: a run-down of my top games for the entire period that I owned a C64. Part one (1982-1986) caused a few cries of “but what about…” (yes, Catflap I’m looking at you!), but that just serves to underline how many superb games were released.

So, now it’s over to you to again agree, disagree, suggest some of your own favourites or just reminisce over some of the titles I’ve listed.

C64 Games of the Year Part One: 1982-1986

Introduction

To make up for the lack of recent postings, this blog entry is a bit longer than normal. It was inspired by an article in Retro Gamer magazine which celebrated the 35th anniversary of the ZX Spectrum by picking the best game released for the machine in each of those 35 years.

Shamelessly stealing the idea, I decide to pick out the best Commodore 64 games for the period 1982-1992, the 10 years that I owned the machine. The post is split into two parts – one covering 1982-1986, the second 1987-1992.

The games selected are the “best” from my point of view. They aren’t not necessarily the “best” in terms of either critical acclaim or commercial success. Some will be titles you might expect to find in such a list; others are a little more left-field. Feel free to disagree with my choices in the comments below, but remember: these are my personal choices, so naturally reflect my own biases!

For each year, there will be a winner, a runner up and up to two “honorable mentions” games which I really, really liked but which didn’t quite make the final two.

So without more ado, let’s hop into our time travel machine and go all the way back to 1982

1982

1982 was something of a lean year for gaming releases, since it was pretty early in the machine’s career, but there were still a few of note.

Honorable mention:

Jupiter Lander – a decent (if ultimately limited and repetitive) version of the arcade game, released by Commodore

Runner up: Choplifter

A rather advanced title for its time which saw you piloting a helicopter to rescue people and taken them to safety, whilst avoiding enemy fire. The rescue element added a whole new level to what would otherwise have a been a run of the mill shooter.

Winner: Radar Rat Race

The first proper C64 game I owned. A close family friend bought me the cartridge version the same Christmas I got my machine, so it’s a game that brings back very happy memories. You took control of a rat trying to escape from other rats and cats whilst eating as much cheese as possible. It was a pretty decent game too, despite the annoying repetition of “Three Blind Mice”.

Rat Race Cover

1983

If 1982 was a bit of lean year, 1983 was brought a bumper crop of games. It was the year that led me to allow “honorable mentions” since there were so many great games from this year that limiting myself to 2 seemed impossible.

Honorable mentions:

Attack of the Mutant Camels: The very first game I bought myself, the first game to reviewed on this blog and the game that started a life-long love affair with the games of Jeff Minter. A quirky title for sure, but a great shoot ‘em up.

Siren City: At a time most games were still arcade clones, Siren City offered something a little different. You took on the role of a police officer patrolling the streets of the titular city and chasing down criminals. Not even the rather cumbersome controls could ruin this fun and innovative title.

Runner up: Forbidden Forest

Another highly innovative game. The chunky graphics, bombastic sound and music, gory deaths and incredible atmosphere made for a game that remained totally addictive no matter how many times you beat it. An inferior sequel followed.

Winner: Blue Max

This isometric flying/shooting game was essentially a Zaxxon clone, but for my money improved on the original. The perspective and controls took a little time to get used to, but the rewards for persevering were great. A challenging and fun game this was one of the few titles I’ve ever been any good at.

Blue_Max_Title

1984

Honorable Mentions:

High Noon: A simple, but effective single screen Western-based shooter from Ocean. Full of quirky humour (the dancing girls, the undertaker taking away the dead bodies) and a brilliant rendition of the High Noon theme tune. Another game I was actually pretty good at, it did become repetitive after a while, but rarely stopped being fun.

Chuckie Egg: This might be heresy, but as a platform game, I’d put Chuckie Egg ahead of Manic Miner because it was more playable and less frustrating. A game I continued to play for as long as I had my C64.

Runner Up: Ghostbusters

It might have been little more than a pretty simple set of mini games based around the film, but Ghostbusters captured the spirit of its celluliod  namesake. From the opening shout of “Ghostbusters, Mwa ha ha ha ha ha!” and the bouncy ball singalong theme tune to the final showdown with the Marshmallow Man, this was an all-too-rare example of a licence done well.

Winner: Bruce Lee

What can I say? Bruce Lee was an addictive and brilliantly playable platform/fighting game that just oozed quality. Full of variety and with a two player mode to boot, this is the game that stands out for me in another year that had some real quality titles.

Bruce Lee - cover

1985

1985 was a bumper year for sports titles, with all of my picks for this year coming from that category.

Honorable mentions:

Way of the Exploding Fist: When this karate game burst arrived on the scene, it was a revelation. The presentation was head and shoulders above many other games, and it was a great fighting game to boot. Only the arrival of International Karate+ two years later could take its crown as the machine’s best martial arts game.

Frank Bruno’s Boxing: A thinly-veiled rip-off of Punch-Out!! that was impressive, fun and frustrating all at once. The larger than life characters looked great on the 64 and it provided a tough challenge. OK, it became quite repetitive and sometimes felt unfair, but I can remember grimly playing it for hours on end, determined to take Frank to the very top (as in real life, I don’t think he ever made it, sadly)

Runner-up: Graham Gooch’s Test Cricket

I’ve never really been a fan of cricket in either real life or on a computer, but something about this game just captivated me. Although control was limited to either the bowler or batter, it was a pretty decent interpretation of the sport. Like the real thing, the more you practiced, the better you got; but the emphasis on arcade style fun over serious simulation made it fun for casual players.

Winner: Barry McGuigan’s World Championship Boxing

Barry’s already been given the full review treatment on RetroReactiv8, and this remains my favourite boxing game to this day. Successfully combining basic simulation and arcade elements it saw the player take control of training and the actual fight as you made your bid for the top.

cover

1986

Honorable mentions:

Killed Until Dead: The first of two slightly left-field choices, this was a pseudo graphic adventure set in the world of amateur sleuthing. Featuring a number of different tales, you had to identify the murderer by piecing together the clues picked up from talking to different characters. Featuring parodies of real life crime writers, this was an amusing, entertaining and quirky game, let down only by being a bit too easy.

Dandy: all-too-often dismissed as a Gauntlet clone (it actually pre-dates it), Dandy plays much better than the official conversion – it’s faster, less buggy and generally more fun. I’m not sure it ever got an official stand-alone release (I only ever saw it on compilations) which is a real shame as it’s a very overlooked title.

Runner up: Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future

Dan Dare was one of the games that changed my perception of what computer games could be. It wasn’t terribly innovative in terms of basic game play (standard find/collect/use objects game mechanics), but it’s presentation was outstanding. Mimicking the panel style presentation of a real comic book it was one of the few early games that really felt like “a playable cartoon.”

Winner: Leaderboard

Leaderboard successfully turned people (like myself) who hate golf in real life into avid computer golfers. The controls were so right that they are still pretty much still used today, whilst the game itself was challenging but fun. World Class Leaderboard might have been a more accomplished game overall, but it was the original game that was the real revelation.

Leaderboard title screen

Note: all the games release dates are taken from the Gamebase64 website, so don’t shout at me if you dispute them!

The Story of the Commodore Amiga in Pixels by Chris Wilkins & Roger Kean [Book Review]

Amiga in pixels

After the Commodore 64, the Amiga is my second most fondly remembered computer (mainly because it was the one I graduated to after my C64). I was pretty loyal to the machine, initially getting an Amiga 500 before upgrading to an A1200, even investing in a massive (for those days!) 20Mb hard disk (one of the best peripherals I ever bought!) As such, I was looking forward to reading this retrospective of the machine.

It’s a shame, then, that the Story of the Commodore Amiga in Pixels didn’t quite live up to my hopes. Written and edited by Chris Wilkins and Roger Kean (who have authored a number of other Kickstarter funded retro gaming books), it certainly had a lot of promise, but for me it didn’t quite live up to expectations.

The book is split into 4 sections. The first looks at the Amiga’s development (both technical and its appeal as a mass market machine) and the fall of Commodore. This is followed by an in-depth look at the Amiga demo scene, with interviews with some of the scene’s big names, whilst the final two sections focus on some of the machine’s core games and the memories of the people who worked on them.

All this sounds pretty promising and, if I’m honest, it’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I didn’t quite like this book as much as I was expecting. In fairness to the book, it’s probably a case of “it’s not you, it’s me”, but there are a number of things that contributed to my viewpoint.

It’s the first two sections which I found to be the weakest and since I read the book sequentially, this possibly had a negative influence on my overall enjoyment.

The history of the Amiga felt a little superficial and rushed. It contains little that won’t already be known to most retro gamers, and if you’re looking for a more comprehensive history of the machine, The Amiga Years documentary offers more. In particular, it seemed to deal with the bankruptcy of Commodore (a major shock to most Amiga users at the time) far too briefly and didn’t really provide an adequate explanation for it. Slightly cynically, this led me to wonder whether the publisher was reluctant to delve too deeply into this in case it stole the thunder from the memoirs of former UK Managing Director David Pleasance (due to be published by RetroFusion Books in late 2017/early 2018.)

Equally the section on the demo scene held little appeal for me. Again, this is coloured by my own personal interests. I’ve never been interested in the Amiga demo scene, either at the time or now and I really struggled getting through this section. In fact, if I wasn’t a completist who refuses to be beaten by a book, I’d probably have skipped it. In fairness, it’s well written and researched and if the demo scene is something you are interested in, then there are plenty of fascinating anecdotes and insights from those involved. Indeed, I’ve read other reviews which say this segment was the highlight for them. In truth, though, it just left me cold.

Happily, after this the book takes an upward turn. Andrew Fisher’s look at some of the Amiga’s key games gives a sense of the impact the machine had and underlines how much of a leap forward it was in game design and aesthetic terms over the 8 bits. It would have been nice to have some insight into how the list of games was drawn up (best-selling titles? Most influential games? Author’s personal favourites? Voting amongst Amiga fans?), but I can’t argue with the games included. Similarly, recollections of Amiga programmers, artists and musicians are as interesting as ever

Crucially (the clue’s in the title!), the book is littered with plenty of wonderful images, photographs, old adverts and other things that really transport you back to when the Amiga seemed the future of gaming. These are all produced in wonderful full colour and look as good now as they did then. Despite my grumbles about some of the content, it’s mostly well-written and easy to read – just what you want from this sort of book.

I know I seem to have a bit of a downer on The Commodore Amiga in Pixels, but it is a good, solid entertaining read. It’s well put together, fairly represents the Amiga era (the highs and the lows) and secures the insights of key people directly connected with the machine. I certainly wouldn’t dissuade anyone from buying it or reading it, but I didn’t feel it ever quite hit the same heights as other books written by the author. It probably comes down to expectations: I’d have preferred the content to be weighted more towards the final two sections, with fewer pages devoted to the first two. On the other hand, I’m sure there are plenty of people who think the opposite view, arguing (with some justification) that there is already plenty of information available on Amiga games and developers, so the author’s should be applauded for taking a slightly different approach.

Either way, I’d give the book a good, solid 3.5 stars out of 5 – and if you’re into the demo scene, you can easily add another star to that.

Available from Fusion Retro Books for £24.99

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!

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.