Fruit Machine Simulator (C64) Review

Fruit Machine Simulator

Sometimes as a gamer, you just have to stick to your views, regardless of the prevailing opinion. There are games which the gaming press and fellow gamers rave about which I just can’t get on with; then there are other games which are generally panned but which you secretly like playing.

Few games sum this up better than Fruit Machine Simulator from Codemasters. Perhaps growing weary of the company’s tendency to stick the word “simulator” on every game they released, the title was almost universally panned across the major formats. Zzap!64 gave the C64 version 18%, Crash scored the Spectrum version 30% (although Sinclair User and Your Sinclair were a little kinder) whilst Amstrad Action notoriously gave that machine’s version a big fat 0.

Most of the criticisms of the game related to the fact that you couldn’t win any actual money which, they argued, rendered the game pointless. Whilst there’s an element of truth about this, I think the magazines were being slightly unkind. If you look at it in the light of cold hard logic, aren’t all games pointless? If you complete a Mario game, what do you actually “get”? You certainly don’t get to marry Peach in real life. If you blast your way to the end of R-Type, you haven’t really saved the universe, have you? So in that sense, Fruit Machine Simulator is neither more nor less pointless than any other game.

Secondly, for those of us who didn’t live near an arcade or who perhaps had little disposable income, Fruit Machine Simulator offered the chance to experience the fun of spinning the slots without the risk of losing all your money. Yes, you won nothing, but neither did you lose anything.

Judged on its own merits, Fruit Machine Simulator was a fun little title and, given its £1.99 price tag, represented good value for money. It featured all the usual things you would expect from a fruit machine: nudges, holds and mini-games of skill and chance. Supporting up to 4 players, it also meant that you could play with your mates and introduced a competitive element. To get over the fact that you couldn’t win real money, we used to make up our own challenges: the first to reach a pre-determined amount of cash; the person with the biggest amount after a fixed number of spins; a rule that you had to gamble on every game of skill and the winner was the one who successfully hit the jackpot first and so on. With a bit of imagination, Fruit Machine Simulator was every bit as fun as its real life counterparts.

The gameplay was well-balanced too. It was more generous with its win lines and payouts than real fruit machines and those small, regular wins kept you playing. At the same time, it wasn’t so easy that it became dull. It wasn’t a realistic “simulation” (which of Codemasters’ titles was?), but the win:lose ratio was enough to get you hooked. Just like a real fruit machine, every time the wheels spun in such a way that you ALMOST hit a big payout, you became convinced that you were just a couple of spins away from a huge score and that encouraged you to play on. Despite the lack of any tangible goals, I always found Fruit Machine Simulator to be an addictive little game and never really understood the criticisms of the gaming press.

The game still stands up well today. Because it was never dependent for its appeal on graphics or sound  (which were pretty basic and so have stood the test of time better) and because the basic concept was so simple and timeless, the game hasn’t aged badly and I still find it as much fun to play now as I did back in 87.

I can do no better than to close with the words of Sinclair User (one of the few magazines to treat it kindly, with an 8/10 review): “It sounds daft, but this is easily the best fruit machine simulator ever and the whole thing is idiotically addictive”.

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It’s all gone quiet over there…

You might have noticed that there’s been no new posts to this blog for a little while now. There’s a number of reasons for this: the pressures of work and home life have had to take priority recently and the stress from those two areas leaves me little time or energy to write blog posts. I’ve got so many competing demands on my time that writing, editing and posting on this blog is waaaay down my list of priorities. If I’m honest, there’s a degree of laziness mixed in there too, in that I’m just not feeling the motivation at the moment to sit and write blog posts. I’m barely getting the time to play games, let alone write about them.

But don’t worry – like Arnie, “I’ll be back”, so please keep stopping by to read some of the older content and one day, maybe even sometime soon, a new post just might, might appear!

Attack of the Flickering Skeletons by Stuart Ashen [Book Review]

Attack of the Flickering Skeletons - cover

Not too long ago, I reviewed Stuart Ashen’s book Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of – a book which probably should carry a government health warning for its embarrassing tendency to make you uncontrollably laugh out loud in public. Now he’s back with more of the same in the intruiguingly (if long-winded) titled Attack of the Flickering Skeletons: More Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.

Quite sensibly working on the premise of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, the book mostly provides more of the same. Pretty much the same rules are applied when it comes to game selection (none of the usual suspects like ET or C64 Chase HQ, computers only; no consoles) but (perhaps depressingly) this still leaves a very broad selection of games from which to choose.

The format, too, is on the same lines. Ashen reviews a number of games in his own inimitable style, pointing out why they were so bad and generally giving them the mockery they deserve. This is backed up with full colour pages containing lots of images, making the book visually appealing, as well as funny. To give Ashen a break (and presumably allow him to go off and play something half decent), there are also occasional contributions from other gaming people (such as fellow YouTubers or former game developers). And just in case you think Ashen is unfairly picking on certain games, he also includes some review scores, showing his views were also shared by professional reviewers at the time the games were released.

On the whole, this format works well. The book looks good, there’s a varied selection of games across multiple systems (8 and 16 bit) and the short, pithy entries are very readable. Ashen has a way with words and manages to write about some fairly mundane things in a funny and engaging way…

…And yet, despite all these positives, I didn’t enjoy Flickering Skeletons anywhere near as much as the first book, and I’m not really sure why. Possibly it’s because I read both books fairly close together so maybe I’d just had enough by that point and should have left a longer gap before reading the sequel. Possibly it’s because I was more familiar with Ashen’s style so wasn’t caught quite so unawares by his sometimes wacky, sometimes wry observations, meaning they elicited fewer belly laughs. Possibly it’s because you could argue that this book is essentially “The Second Most Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of” and the titles that really deserved ridicule had already received their comeuppance in the first book (although given how much dross was released, this is probably not the strongest argument!)

Don’t get me wrong: Flickering Skeletons is not a bad book by any means; in fact it’s a great one. It’s just that the bar was set so high by the first book that it was always going to be a tough ask to follow it up. It’s not that I didn’t find it funny – I smiled and sniggered my way through it; I read out occasional short snippets to Mrs RetroReactiv8 and even she (as a non-gamer) smiled at some of the absurdities. But there’s the thing: I only smiled and sniggered; with the first book I frequently laughed out loud. I only read occasional snippets to Mrs RR8; with the previous book I read whole chunks or even complete entries. Somehow, it just felt a little bit less than the first one in every department.

Do I regret buying it? Not for a second. Would I recommend it for purchase? Absolutely. Just be aware that (for whatever reason) you might not find it quite as hilarious as the first entry. If you bear that in mind, you’ll be fine. And just to emphasise the point that this is not even close to being a bad book: if a third title in the series were to be announced, I would pre-order it like a shot.

Attack of the Flickering Skeletons is available from Amazon for around £8 (hardback) or £6 (Kindle).

Galencia (PC/Steam) review

Galencia title screen

If you’re plugged into the world of the C64, you’ve probably been hearing quite a bit of buzz recently around Galencia, a Galaxians-inspired game from Jason Aldred. The game received a physical release for the original hardware, but for those of us who no longer have a C64, it’s now available for PC via Steam – the first C64 game to be released on the platform!

It’s hard to imagine that anyone reading this blog won’t be familiar with Galaxians, but just in case, I’ll go through the basics. Based on the early 80s arcade game, it’s best described as What Space Invaders Did Next. The screen fills with alien invaders who fly on from the side. However, instead of moving their way from side to side down the screen, some of these aliens peel off and fly around whilst taking potshots at you. This instantly makes them more dangerous: their flight paths can be unpredictable and hitting a moving target is inevitably harder than hitting a static/slow-moving one. This, then, is the basis for Galencia.

There are two important things to say about Galencia from the outset. Firstly (and most critically), it’s a great game, highly polished and very addictive. Secondly, it is essentially a new C64 version of Galaxians. All the gameplay elements you’d expect (swooping aliens, tractor beam aliens who can capture your ship, double ship bonus if you free a trapped ship) are present and correct. Beyond a bit of spit and polish here and there, it’s an update, not a reboot. If you come to it expecting a solid version of Galaxians complete with retro graphics and sound, you’ll not be disappointed; if you’re looking for a major overhaul (along the lines of Space Invaders Infinite), then it might not be the game for you.

Right, that’s the managing expectation stuff done, so let’s get on with the review.

The bottom line is Galencia is good; very good. The graphics are generally a decent size and full of character, capturing the look and feel of the original, whilst bringing in plenty of new design elements. There’s nice variety between different types and more are introduced as the game progresses (my favourites so far are the ones that look like flying skulls). They are well-animated although there have been times when I’ve felt they were perhaps on the small side, making them trickier to hit. The chatty “mission control” head that talks to your pilot via speech bubbles is a nice extra graphical touch that adds to the game’s character.

Sound is equally 8 bit, but that’s not a criticism from me. A great chip tune accompanies the action, with sound effects fairly minimal, but effective. In these days of overblown full, orchestral scores and sound effects loud enough to damage your walls, it’s good to get back to basics with a catchy chip tune and limited effects.

So far, it’s all been good news, but I’ve saved the best until last: the gameplay is spot-on. It’s surprising how much the simple act of adding swooping aliens and a tractor beam adds to the Space Invaders formula and it’s been perfectly implemented here. The game is certainly challenging, but it never feels unfair. When you die, it’s your fault: you didn’t move fast enough, you crashed into an alien or a bullet; it’s not because the game has “cheated”. As such (unlike many modern games where you get an achievement just for starting the game), it feels like a real success when you get onto the high score table or beat your own best score. It also feels incredibly tense as aliens are unpredictable and so no two games are ever the same. It’s not unusual for me to come away from Galencia with sweaty palms – more so than when I’ve played a “proper” horror game like Resident Evil. When you’re down to your last life, desperately hanging on to get to the next level/beat your high score/secure an extra life, it’s surprising how tense the game can be.

Because the gameplay has been so well implemented, it’s also lost none of the addictive qualities Galaxians introduced all those years ago. Games (at least when I play it!) tend to be fairly short. This makes it perfect for gaming when you don’t have a lot of time. Except it’s not, because there’s no such things as “a few quick games” as far as Galencia is concerned. As soon as you lose your last life, you check your score, find it wanting and instantly hitting Fire to have another go. As with all the best games, it’s not unusual to sit down to play for “just 10 minutes” before looking at the clock to realise over an hour has passed.

If there are criticisms, they are small ones. As far as I can see, the game can’t be run full screen, but runs in a small(ish) window. Presumably this is because it’s running on Steam via a modified version of the Vice 64 emulator. Secondly, controller support is very limited. It doesn’t work with my Xbox 360 controller (which is supported by most Steam games) and the only option is to use the keyboard. That said, whilst controller support might be nice, using the keyboard is more authentic, so will appeal to purists.

[Quick update: You can safely ignore these minor quibbles. A couple of hours after posting this review, the game’s programmer, Jason Aldred got in touch to say that pressing Alt & Enter will toggle full-screen mode on and off, whilst pressing J or K will select Joystick or Keyboard control, so it now works fine with my Xbox 360 controller (although actually, this has just proved that I prefer the keyboard input anyway!)]

Best of all, Galencia is stupidly cheap – less than £3 for a superb version of Galaxians – it’s a game that will offer hours and hours of fun and has endless replay value, thanks to the score-chasing objective of the game. My only real concern for Galencia (on Steam) is that modern gamers will dismiss it based on the screenshots or ignore it as “old-fashioned and boring”. If you’re a retro gamer on the lookout for a new version of classic game, thought, it’s definitely one to consider.

It’s probably my favourite C64 version of Galaxians apart from Galaxi-i-Birds. High praise indeed!

Horizon Chase Turbo (PC) Review

Horizon Chase Turbo - title

I love most game genres, but if I had to choose, racing games would top the list. Outrun (arcade) and Turbo Outrun (C64) are two of my favourite games, with the excellent Lotus series (Amiga) not far behind.

Recently, though, there’s been a dearth of old-style racers. The genre has changed and, in my view, not for the better. There’s much more of a focus on realism: damage to cars (with resulting impact on performance) and endless tinkering with settings to squeeze every last ounce of performance out of a car are staples of the modern racer. Whilst I can certainly appreciate the realism of (say) the Gran Turismo or F1 games, they’re not my thing. I’m a speed freak (at least in computer games!) I just want to hop into a car and race around the track as fast as I can, getting that burst of adrenaline as I burn past the opposition.

Step forwards Horizon Chase Turbo for PC, an unapologetic 80s/90s racer in the Outrun or Lotus mould. Like me, the developers have a pretty clear idea that speed makes a good racing game, not endless tinkering with your fuel injection pipes!

No, the goal in Horizon Chase Turbo is to get in a car, drive fast and compete in a series of races around the world against other drivers. Finish in the top 5 in any race and you can progress to the next, although there are additional bonuses to be had (including new cars and upgrades) for finishing first or collecting the tokens that lie around on the track. It’s instantly accessible and it’s fun. In other words, it’s everything I think a racing game should be!

The graphics have an appealing, colourful style that, like the game itself, isn’t constrained by realism. The cars look fantastic and there’s a definite retro vibe going on with the background scenery and roadside furniture, giving the game a strong visual appeal. The music (by industry veteran Barry Leitch) is superb, again aping the retro tunes of 80s/90s racers, and really adding to the atmosphere. There’s not quite anything on a par with Magical Sound Shower, but it’s a close run thing. If there’s a slight criticism, it’s that some of the sound effects (particularly engine roars and squealing tyres) could do with beefing up a little.

Crucially, Horizon Chase Turbo is fast. The scenery flashes by and it’s really satisfying to roar past other cars, leaving them for dust. The difficulty level is very well-managed too. Early tracks consist of long, straight stretches, giving you chance to get used to the speed and the handling of the car, before later tracks introduce more corners. Even when the tracks get trickier, the designers have still thrown in the odd easier one, giving you a bit of respite from the motoring mayhem. It’s clear that a lot of effort has gone into getting the track design right and it really pays off. I’ve never once felt that a track was nasty or designed to catch me out. Yes, there are some tricky sections (rapid left/right turns in quick succession), but learning how to navigate these successfully is part of the game’s learning curve.

When it comes to realism, Horizon Chase Turbo gives it the day off. If you crash into another car or a roadside sign, you just lose some speed. Even a high speed collision with a roadside obstacle only results in your car momentarily flipping over, before landing on all 4 wheels and letting you continue (hint: a quick hit of the Nitro button can help you get back up to speed quickly after a big collision to prevent you from losing too many places). Cars suffer no damage or ill-effects from collisions, and continue to operate at peak performance, no matter how many times you crash.

If there’s a criticism about the game’s difficulty level, it comes with the AI of the computer controlled cars. Sometimes they do seem to gang up on you, sticking together in packs, making it really difficult to overtake them without a collision (thus losing ground on the race leaders). If you come across one of these groups on a series of corners, getting past them can be really problematic and is probably the game’s biggest single source of frustration. But then that’s not just an issue with Horizon Chase Turbo – I can remember exactly the same frustration with the computer controlled cars in Pitstop II, way back in the mid 80s!

The other disappointment is that, although there is a multiplayer mode, it only supports local play with no multiplayer support. Although it might be surprising to hear me say this (since I’ve written before about how I’m not much of an online gamer), I really think this is a missed opportunity. This is one of those games that really would have benefitted from the ability to race against players from across the world. Sadly, since none of my gaming friends live close enough to pop over for a quick race, the local multiplayer option is all but useless and I am forever doomed just to play with myself (fnarr! fnarr! etc.)

Don’t let the price put you off – As Steam games go, it’s not the cheapest (around £15) because it’s worth every penny. The two single player game modes offer plenty of challenge, and even when you’d unlocked all the tracks, there’s still the challenging of finishing first in all races, collecting all the tokens or just beating your own best times. I actually went onto Steam to buy a different racing game (that was less than half the price), but this one came up in my “You might also like” box. A quick bit of research suggested this might be more my cup of tea than the one I first looked at, so I bought it and haven’t regretted it for a minute.

Horizon Chase Turbo is a love letter to the old-school racers of the 80s and 90s. It’s fast, frenetic, instantly accessible and completely brilliant. It wears its influences on its sleeve and is totally, utterly unrealistic and I just love it all the more for that. If Outrun and Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge had a baby, it might just look like this.

 

 

 

The Good, The Bad and the Mediocre

When it comes to reviewing old games on retrogaming blogs, things tend to fall into two camps, focussing on the really good games or the really bad ones. RetroReactiv8 is no exception to this. Although I mostly try and focus on the positive side of retrogaming, I do occasionally venture into stinker territory and highlight really bad or particularly disappointing games.

And therein lies a bit of a problem. If you knew nothing about retrogaming and read many of these blogs, you’d assume that every game in the 80s was either utterly brilliant or completely crap. The truth, of course, is that the vast majority were just mediocre – the only reason that we don’t remember them or talk about them is because so many were instantly forgettable.

This was brought home to me recently when I was looking at some of the compilations available for the C64 Mini from the excellent Freeze 64 website. Some of these are collections from particular publishers (Ocean, Interceptor Software, Super Soft etc.). As I was looking through these collections, there were so many titles that either I couldn’t remember at all or which only vaguely rang a bell – even those by big name publishers like US Gold. Some were games that I’d never actually owned or played, so that could be forgiven; others were titles that I did know about back in the day, but which were so “meh” I’d dismissed all memory of them.

So being the keen, investigative blog that RetroReactiv8 is, I decided to do a bit of research. I took three well-known 80s publishers (US Gold, Melbourne House and Ocean), looked at the games that were on the Freeze64 compilations and cross-referenced these with their original Zzap!64 scores (look, I was bored and don’t particularly like football, OK?)

Here’s what I found.

Of the 34 US Gold games available from Freeze 64 that Zzap! reviewed, the average score was 54%. Only 2 games got above 90% and only 6 were ranked at 80%+. Equally, though, only 6 titles featured in what I would call the truly awful range (0-30%). So, only 12/34 were either really good or really bad. However, 17 (50%) secured a spot in the mediocrity range (41-70%). (The remaining titles scored either 30-40% or 70-80% in case you think my maths is a bit out!)

Melbourne House proved even better at being mediocre. Of the 21 titles on their compilation that Zzap! reviewed, only 4 were real stinkers (although Inspector Gadget gets the distinction of being the worst game – just 9%, lower even than US Gold’s infamous World Cup Carnival). Just two titles were ranked at 80% or above, whilst 12 (57%) fell into that “mediocre” bracket.

See what I’m saying?

Only Ocean – arguably the biggest publisher by the end of the 8 bit era – bucked this trend. It had a marginally higher rating of excellent games (39%) to mediocre ones (32%) and managed to secure 6 games in the top 91-100% bracket. Even so, to have over a third of your output rated as “mediocre” still supports the idea that, like modern systems, the C64 suffered from a ton of shovel ware.

Of course, this is a hugely unscientific post: it’s based on only a small percentage of the overall output of each of these publishers, so a more thorough study of all of their games (which I really can’t be bothered doing!) might reveal this blog post to be a lie. Even so, it shows what selective memory we have when it comes to retrogaming. The really great stuff and the really bad stuff sticks in our mind; but these games were actually in the minority when stacked against most releases, which were just instantly forgettable. Not good enough to be remembered; not bad enough to be infamous.

So there we go: Mediocre games never die. They were just lying, waiting to be reborn on the C64 Mini!

Book Preview: 8 Bit on a Budget by Kieren Hawken

On RetroReactiv8, I tend to focus on reviews (either of old games or new retro-related products.), rather than highlighting upcoming products. Occasionally, though, I like to get behind projects I think look interesting – the excellent Hyper Sentinel was one; the (hopefully) forthcoming book Virtual Cities another.

8 Bit on a Budget, written by regular Retro Gamer contributor Kieren Hawken is the latest to catch my eye. It’s a book that celebrates the best of budget label releases – that phenomenon of the mid-late 80s where games were suddenly available at pocket money prices. Of course, many budget games were awful (Bionic Granny – I’m looking at you), but a significant number – whether original releases (Dizzy, Thrust) or re-releases of previously full priced (Bubble Bobble, Cybernoid) titles were excellent – better than some full-priced games

The book is being published by Unbound, which operates on a crowd-funding model. In order to guarantee a minimum number of pre-orders, people interested in the title can pledge their support. Once the funding target is reached, the book will be published.

You can find out more on the Unbound website. The campaign seems to be struggling a little at the moment – it’s been stuck on about 5% for a while now – so if you think this sounds like a book for you, why not pledge your support and promote it a bit on your own blogs or social media channels?