Action Biker (featuring Clumsy Colin from the 80s KP Skips adverts) is a title that seems to divide people. Released on the budget label Mastertronic in 1986, it cost a measly £1.99 and for me was one of the best pure budget games released for the C64 (discounting re-releases of full priced titles). On the other hand, there are plenty of people who dismiss it as boring. And they are perfectly entitled to their opinion (although they are, of course, wrong!)
As I remember, the plot went something like this: Clumsy Colin is due to take part in a race on his motorbike. However, living up to his name, he has carelessly mislaid all the equipment (crash helmet, better brakes etc.) that might help him win. So your task is to drive Colin and his bike around town to locate all the missing bits and bobs (40 in total). Do it within the time limit and you can head off to the drag strip to win that race. As if all that wasn’t enough, you also need to make sure your bike doesn’t run out of fuel (you can visit the petrol station to refuel, but must do it before your fuel runs out).
The most noticeable thing about Action Biker is the complete lack of enemies in the traditional sense. Unlike say Paperboy, to which the game bears a passing resemblance, the only thing that can really kill Colin is Colin himself. Of course, there are hazards (don’t try going into the water on your bike until you’ve collected the water skis; crashing into things at speed is not a good idea), but no actual sentient enemies.
Instead, the game is all about exploring the game’s decent sized play area. This has some fun locations, including the town with various buildings, a building site (which changes as the game progresses), a park area (complete with lakes) and even a fairground (complete with a rollercoaster). Of course, being clumsy, Colin has often lost his items in some pretty hard to reach places, so you’re going to need to master control of your bike to get them all.
Despite the lack of traditional enemies, the gameplay is actually pretty well-balanced. Objects could be anywhere and the large play area means that it might take you a while to locate the next one (leading to more than a few anxious glances at the timer). Later objects are also in some pretty awkward places, making for tricky driving to collect them. A couple, for example, are precariously balanced on the rollercoaster track, meaning you have to carefully drive on the rollercoaster track to reach them. This requires a delicate balance between speed and agility. Go too fast and you will fall off the rollercoaster; go too slowly and that precious time (and fuel) slowly slips away, reducing your chances of collecting all the objects within the time limit.
It’s this gameplay that divides people. Some embrace it and love the challenge of being up against nothing but the clock. There’s definitely a certain purity to it: if you make a mistake and crash, it’s because you misjudged the situation, not because some enemy crept up on you leaving you no time to react. If you run out of fuel, it’s because you took one risk too many and tried to carry on for too long rather than waste precious seconds refuelling. For others, the gameplay is too repetitive with no real sense of danger and little to do other than drive around, finding stuff. I can understand where they are coming from – on my first play back in 86, I was distinctly underwhelmed. However, I soon found that if you persevere, it starts to become oddly addictive.
Graphically the game was decent enough, with a nice isometric viewpoint giving a clear view of the action. Sure they weren’t anything to write home about – fairly blocky and simplistic, but as budget games go, it’s a long way from the worst I’ve ever seen.
Sound too was pretty minimal. The bike’s engine had a pleasing purr to it, but other sound effects were fairly sparse. This, though, simply meant your ears had more time to take in yet another excellent Rob Hubbard sound track. Whilst it’s not usually mentioned as one of his greatest compositions, it’s definitely catchy and it’s always the second tune I think of (after Commando) when I think of Rob Hubbard. In fact, if you’ve ever played the game, you’re probably humming the tune right now.
The game’s biggest let-down is the ending which is unbelievably poor. This was one of just a handful of games I ever managed to beat without cheating, but it left me wondering why the hell I’d bothered. Here’s what happens…
Having tracked down and collected all 40 items within the time limit (no mean feat), you make your way to the drag strip for the race. Sadly, it appears you are the only person who has turned up (maybe everyone else lost their equipment too?). Still, that’s no reason for the race not to go ahead, right? So you wait for the green light and when it appears, accelerate as quickly as you can. You fly under the finish post AND…
The game ends.
That’s it. No splash screen showing Colin looking mightily smug, no congratulations message, not even a special piece of music. You’re just dumped back to the title screen. After all the effort you have put in, it is possibly the single, most pointless and demotivating ending the programmers could have come up with.
The first time I beat the game, I thought my copy must be corrupted so I went back to the shop, got it replaced and slogged through the whole thing again, with exactly the same result. At this point I realised that this was the intended (non)ending and probably said a few naughty words (although quietly, in case my mum heard me in the kitchen).
I appreciate that memory was tight on 8 bit machines and the large game world probably ate up a lot of resources, but surely they could have found a few extra bytes from somewhere just to add the usual rainbow text message a “Well done Colin, you’ve won the race.” Even allowing for the fact it was a budget game, not acknowledging your achievement in any way was pretty poor.
It’s a damn good job that the rest of Action Biker is decent because that ending nearly kills it stone dead. As it is, it just about gets away with it because the game itself offers a reasonable challenge, good fun and excellent value for money at just £2. Of course, if you’re one of those people who think the gameplay is boring, then the ending just confirms your opinion that Acton Biker is nothing more than the waste of a good C30 cassette.