Classic Con or Mini Marvels?

Retro gamers can hardly failed to have noticed the recent surge in miniaturized versions of some of the favourite computers and consoles of the 80s and 90s. It was all kicked off with the Mini NES/SNES, followed by the C64 Mini, with the new mini Neo Geo and Playstation Classic making an appearance in time for Christmas 2018.

I can completely understand the appeal of these consoles but – with the exception of the C64 Mini – none of them have tempted me to part with my hard earned cash. This is odd, because surely I’m exactly the target demographic for these devices. So why is it the case? Well, there are a number of reasons.

First is the cost: Many of the consoles are pretty expensive, considering what you get. Typically ranging from £70-120, when looked at logically they just don’t make sense from a financial point of view. Whilst the price of retro consoles and games has risen considerably over the past few years, originals of most of the machines in question can still be picked up for a reasonable price, along with a number of decent games. The exception to this is, of course, the Neo Geo Mini – the full console and its games have always commanded a high price, so for many people the Mini version represents their only realistic chance of “owning” one.

For the rest, though, the point stands. Let’s take the Playstation Classic as an example. The original Playstation machine is neither hard to find nor expensive, whilst a quick trawl of any charity/second shop will net plenty of games that can be bought for a couple of quid. Think of how many of those you could buy with the £90 that the Playstation Mini will set you back and it makes you start to wonder whether the mini version is worth your attention.

At this stage, I should point out that this is not snobbery on my part around the whole “original hardware vs emulation” debate (I’ve written before about how I tend to take a pragmatic approach to retro gaming, balancing the desire to have original hardware with the realities of the constraints of space, money and technological reliability). However, the current reality is that (at the moment at least), it’s still cheaper to buy an original machine and save the rest of the money for buying loads of games to play on it. To illustrate this point perfectly, take a look at this Tweet (the message that inspired this blog post)

Which brings me onto my next point. With the exception of the C64 Mini, your choice of games on these shrunken consoles is limited. The NES Mini comes with 30 games, the SNES Mini has 21, whilst the Playstation Classic has just 20. It’s not a huge amount, is it, especially when you consider the vast library of games all these consoles enjoyed. And the chances are that within any selection of titles, there will be some great ones, some OK ones and some weak ones. Due to licensing and copyright issues, some of your favourite games (and some of the best games for the platform) just won’t get included. Tomb Raider was the game that persuaded people to buy the original Playstation yet (for perfectly understandable reasons), it is nowhere to be seen on the PS Classic.

There will also be some titles (regardless of quality) that you enjoy playing more than others. Let’s be honest, even on a generous estimate, the chances are that, after a few initial plays, at least 50% of the content will never be loaded again. I look at some of the titles on the NES Mini or the Neo Geo Mini and I just know that they are the sort of game I will never, ever play, which effectively renders them useless.

Which brings me onto my final point and the killer reason why these consoles just don’t appeal to me: expandability. With the exception of the C64 Mini (which already carries the largest number of built-in titles – 64), new games cannot be added. You are stuck with the selection of titles that the original manufacturer has identified and cannot add your own favourites. For me, this makes them really unappealing, particularly for those consoles which had such a massive catalogue of fantastic games that I either remember fondly and want to replay, or which I never got to experience first time around and would like to play now. I get that there are all the issues around the legality of ROMs and that companies (particularly the increasingly litigious Nintendo) want to protect their properties, but it does reduce my interest significantly. In fact, every time a new mini console is announced, you could pretty much plot my reaction on a graph and it would look remarkably similar every time – something like this, in fact:

predicted interest curve

As I mentioned previously, the only one of these consoles I have succumbed to is the C64 Mini. Partly that’s because I have an in-built bias towards Commodore products as the computers I grew up with. A bigger factor, though, was that the manufacturer’s promised that additional games could be added via a USB stick. OK, it took a while to get this functionality working properly and it’s still not perfect, but it gives the console a whole new lease of life once the appeal of the in-built games has faded.

I know that someone is bound to point out that most of the mini consoles can be hacked to allow new games to be added but, as someone with all the technical abilities of a dead slug, the prospect of doing this fills me with terror. I’d probably do it wrong and end up bricking my device so that I was just left with a fancy doorstop.

As I said at the start, I can see the appeal of these mini consoles and understand why they sell so well (which means, of course, that they will keep on coming). From a gamer’s point of view, they offer a chance to “re-own” hardware and games that you probably now regret getting rid of; from a manufacturer’s point of view, they offer a new income stream on old properties. However, until the ability to add new games is standard, out-of-the-box functionality, they just aren’t for me.

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Commodore: the inside story by David John Pleasance [Book Review]

Commodore - the inside story

How a firm as big as Commodore managed to self-destruct so spectacularly has always intrigued me. I can remember reading the Amiga press at the time and wondering (as both a C64 and Amiga owner) how such a big, successful company could go bust. I’ve heard various tales over the years, but David Pleasance’s book, Commodore: The Inside Story, is the first I’ve read from the perspective of someone who was there for much of Commodore’s rise and fall.

The book is divided into two sections. The first is Pleasance’s recollections of his time at Commodore, recounting company’s successes (and latterly) many mistakes. The second contains contributions from various people associated with Commodore or the computer industry, including R J Mical whose name will need no explanation to Commodore aficionados.

It makes for a fascinating read. In the first section, Pleasance manages a good balance between the autobiographical (early chapters focus on his somewhat varied pre-Commodore career) and broader Commodore-related things. He is an engaging storyteller and (crucially) pulls no punches when it comes to his version of why the company failed. He is deeply critical of the Commodore US management, but also quick to praise some of the contributions of his fellow Commodore UK staff. Given the somewhat sad subject matter, the whole tone of the book is surprisingly optimistic. It would have been too easy to make this a negative, depressing, moan-laden read but Pleasance resists this, recognizing where mistakes were made but also highlighting the good times.

Another of the book’s strengths is in the level of detail provided. It’s much more than a superficial overview, without being too detailed. There’s a good mix of personal anecdotes and straightforward story-telling and you really get a sense of the highs and lows of working at Commodore during the period.

There were times when I thought Pleasance was using the benefit of hindsight to pinpoint what went wrong, or saying if only Commodore had listened to him, things would have turned out very differently. There’s a danger this could have come across as arrogant and egotistical, but when you read the second section many of the other contributors make exactly the same points – which suggests that they contain a strong element of truth. One thing Pleasance and many contributors are all united in is their belief that the ultimate responsibility Commodore’s demise should be laid at the feet of Mehdi Ali – the man who presided over Commodore’s transition from a multi-million dollar company to bankruptcy (an “achievement” recognized in one online biography as a period in which he “achieved a major operational turnaround”. Well, I guess that’s one way of putting it.

The hardest part to read was the one dealing with the failed management buyout of Commodore by Pleasance and others. I remember this period vividly. Pleasance and colleagues heroically kept Commodore UK going for around 18 months after the demise of its parent company and tried to put together a package that would keep the brand alive. I remember avidly reading Amiga Power and CU Amiga every month, hoping that there would be some positive news that their bid had been successful and being devastated when I heard that the bid had been withdrawn. For me, that was when the Amiga really died (at least commercially). This part of the story was new to me and learning of the skullduggery that effectively scuppered the bid left a really nasty taste in the mouth. Commodore came so close to surviving as a viable company, that you really are left thinking about how different the computer industry might be today if it had survived.

After the enjoyment of part one, I was slightly surprised to find I enjoyed reading part two just as much. Here the content is more varied (some people recount personal memories of working at Commodore, some recall how certain things were achieved with the Amiga, others are just collections of anecdotes associated with the company and its products.). Like the first part, though, it’s rarely anything less than interesting. It’s true that there were some chapters which were too technical for me (I’ve always had a strong interest in computers but my eyes glaze over as soon as anyone starts talking tech!) Such chapters are, however, in the minority, and even the most technically based chapters still contain plenty of interesting memories.

One of the book’s biggest let-downs was a relative dearth of period images and photographs. I had hoped it would provide a treasure trove of unseen or rare insider photos, Commodore memorabilia or unusual items, packed with pics of the Commodore offices at their peak or the Commodore staff in action. Whilst there is some (particularly in the latter part of the book) I would have liked more.

The wait for this Kickstarter funded book ended up being considerably longer than originally anticipated (originally due for publication in December 2017, it finally found its way into backers’ hands in September 2018), but it was absolutely worth the wait. It’s well-written, interesting and doesn’t pull its punches. You could argue that it’s only one man’s personal account and that other people might present things differently, but that doesn’t stop it from being a great read.

For my part, it mostly confirmed the view I’ve always had of David Pleasance – that he was one of the good guys in this tale. It’s just a shame it couldn’t have had a happier ending.

Available for £30 from Downtime Publishing (hardback)

Zzap!64 Annual 2019 [review]

Zzap 2018 cover.jpg

(c) Fusion Retro Books 2018

Like so many C64 owners, I was an avid Zzap!64 reader in the 80s. My first issue (attracted by the stunning Oli Frey artwork) was number 17 (1986) and from the first page, I was hooked. I bought it on a monthly basis, initially from the shops then as a loyal subscriber until just before the title morphed into Commodore Force.

Sadly, all good things come to end. With the end of the 8 bit era, I thought I’d seen the last of Zzap!64. It turns out (as with so many things in my life), I was wrong.

Hopes were raised in 2017 when Crash Magazine was successfully re-invented as a Kickstarter-funded annual from Chris Wilkins and Fusion Retro Books. The success of that brought a similar (also wildly popular) 2018 Kickstarter campaign for Crash’s younger, better looking sister. History was repeating itself – Crash came first, closely followed by Zzap!

The big question, of course, was could the new book live up to the hype? As many 8 bit fans will know, the Newsfield mags are still fondly remembered, and the team would face a tough challenge producing the magazine we all remembered (sometimes with a hint of rose tinted glasses), whilst updating it for the modern market.

Early signs were good. In addition to Chris Wilkins, original editor and artist Roger Kean and Oli Frey were on board and former Zzap! Writers Julian Rignall and Robin Hogg (along, of course, with the ever-mysterious Lloyd Mangram) also signed up. The fact that there was no Gary Penn disappointed some, but it was a strong line-up.

Then came the fateful day when the actual item was delivered. I opened it up nervously and carefully – exactly as I previously did with the magazine and my initial reaction was…

“What sorcery is this?” Apart from the fact that the book was hardcover and not magazine format, I could have time-travelled back over 30 years. The Oli Frey cover art was as fresh and exciting, the flashes on the front cover promised exciting articles inside and the layouts looked spot on.

Then I started reading it, and that’s when things went… even better (ha! Bet you thought it was all going to go horribly wrong there, didn’t you!). The writing, from both old hands and newcomers alike, is excellent. It captures the style and sense of fun of the old Zzap! without following it too slavishly or feeling outdated. Just like the old days (in a way that perhaps hasn’t been seen since the demise of Amiga Power), the enthusiasm of the reviewers creates that sense of common interest with the reader, re-kindling that old Zzap! community spirit.

The layout of the mag is also spot on. It’s instantly, recognisably a “Newsfield” publication, but given a slight tweak so that it doesn’t look too old-fashioned or dated. The colours are right, the text layout faithful and (most important of all!) Rockford and Thingy appear in the margins.

The content is a good balance between retrospective and new stuff. One of my concerns before I got hold of the book was that it might read like a C64-themed issue of Retro Gamer magazine, and I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted. Once again, I was wrong (spot a theme here?!). There are certainly some articles looking back at the old Zzap! days (Jaz Rignall’s retrospective of early Zzap! Gold Medal winners and his views on them today is particularly interesting), but there are also plenty of new reviews of games that have been released for the C64 over the past decade or so. Just like the Zzap! of old, these make up the bulk of the magazine and are as readable and informative as ever.

I do have a number of small gripes. First up is the pen portraits of the reviewers as they give their individual verdicts on games. In the old days, each reviewer had several portraits, indicating whether they thought the game was incredible, terrible or just average. I used to love flicking through the mag looking at these, as you could see at a glance which games were worthy of consideration and which were stinkers (or sometimes, where the opinions of reviewers differed drastically). In Zzap! 2018, the reviewers have only one portrait, so you can’t gauge opinions at a glance.

Next up is the lack of prices on game reviews, which used to feature in the original. I guess the reason for this is that, in the digital age, prices can fluctuate wildly, so any price provided could be completely wrong by the time the reader has the book. However, I’d like to have seen an indicative price, even if this was qualified by a disclaimer stating “prices correct at the time of printing”. It’s just a tiny area where the accuracy with the original mag isn’t quite there.

My two last criticisms are by far the most serious and, frankly, everyone involved in the book should hang their heads in shame. Firstly: where is my cover tape packed with free games and the latest demos? And secondly, I used to get Zzap!64 coming through my letterbox every month. Now I have to wait a whole year at least until the next instalment. Come on guys; get your fingers out. What are you playing at?!

Seriously, though, this is almost the perfect retro product. It provides a huge blast of nostalgia, but has been sympathetically modernised. It’s as informative and entertaining as ever, without falling prey to the worst excesses of silly humour that marred later editions. Most crucially, it really captures the old Zzap!64 spirit and creates that connection with its readers – just like the old days.

Zzap! Lives!

Available from Fusion Retro Books for £15

So near, yet so far…

Like many 8 bit kids, it was my dream to be a games programmer. It always looked so exciting and glamourous. After all, who wouldn’t want to hang out with the cool writers of Zzap! or Crash or bask in the warm glow of the knowledge that kids everywhere were playing your game (even if they had probably pirated it!)?

Of course, like most of us, I never even came close to realizing that ambition for a number of reasons.

The first was a complete lack of talent in pretty much all areas of game creation. I’ve always been a bit of a duffer when it comes to programming and have spent 30 years trying to learn, so that was out. I can’t draw for toffee, so art of any sort (graphics, loading screens, cassette inlays, adverts etc.) was also out. And whilst I am quite musical, I’m only any good at playing stuff other people have written, not composing my own. I was a bit rubbish at game design (read the description of my self-penned game The Curse of Anubis in this blog post to find out more) so that wasn’t an option either. In fact, my only real talent was in thinking up game titles that sounded far more exciting than anything I ever actually produced. I suppose I could have been the bloke that wrote the blurb for the back of cassette inlays but that’s not a talent that would probably have taken me very far.

Then there was the question of geography. There was little old me, stuck in the north west of England, when obviously all the exciting developments in software creation were going to be based in really happening, cosmopolitan places like London and New York. Probably in shiny, expensive offices at the very top of majestic skyscrapers, commanding incredible, panoramic views of the city.

Yeah.

With hindsight, I realise how stupid that paragraph now makes me look, but I genuinely believed it at the time! There I was sitting in the middle of one of the hotbeds of 80s game development, and I didn’t even realise it! I mean: just think of all the software companies that called Liverpool and Manchester or the surrounding areas their home in the 80s: Bug Byte, Imagine, Ocean, A&F Software, Odin, Software Projects, Crystal Computing and English Software to name but a few.

I blame my parents. In our house, anything new or exciting, innovative or cutting edge was automatically ascribed (often sniffily) to “America” or “London”. So to my young mind, it stood to reason that these new-fangled computer game thingies had to come from there.

In fairness, my previously documented complete and utter lack of ability in any meaningful area of game design probably held me back more than my geographical ignorance, but I do sometimes wish I had a time machine so that I could go back and visit some of those places and talk to the developers.

Right place, wrong time. Story of my life.

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”.

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).