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?


Bounder [Game Review]

Bounder title

Bounder was not a game I played much in its original C64 incarnation. I think I did eventually own it, but by that time I had so many games that I only ever really played a handful of my favourites. As such, I came to this new mobile version of Bounder with a fresh eye.

For those of you who don’t know, you must guide a tennis ball through a maze of tiles, gaps and other hazards to the goal at the end of the level. As the ball bounces, you have to time connecting with solid surfaces to enable you to clear any gaps between tiles, and this is nowhere near as easy as it sounds. There are bonus tiles scattered around (often in awkward places), which reward you with things like points or extra lives when you jump on them and this provides an added risk-reward mechanism.

The first thing to note is that this is a complete recreation of the original game for modern platforms, rather than an emulated version. On the whole, this is a good thing. It means that the game avoids any of the lag or glitches of emulation, and it runs smoothly on my Android device with no issues. There are times when it is perhaps a little too faithful, and incorporating a more modern approach might have been beneficial – more on this later.

Bounder certainly doesn’t skimp when it comes to the presentation. There are three versions supplied, all available from the start: the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and Spectrum games. If you could say nothing else nice about Bounder, the developer should be applauded for avoiding use of in-app purchase or forcing the player to unlock the different versions by completing particular challenges or milestones.

To get a sense of how faithful the game is, I loaded up the old C64 version and compared the opening levels with this new version. I was impressed. As far as my (untrained) eye can tell, the graphics and level design are spot-on. I assume it’s the same with the others, although to be honest, I mainly stick to the C64 game because (all bias aside), it’s the best. The colour scheme of the Amstrad version is a little too garish for my taste, whilst the monochrome Spectrum version looks good but can make it tricky to spot the surfaces which can be bounced on safely.

Bounder C64

The graphics on the whole are functional and serviceable, rather than impressive (as was the case with the original). It can initially be a little tricky to distinguish solid platforms from steep (and deadly) drops and early games involve a certain level of trial and error. You’ll soon learn, however, that patience is a definite virtue when it comes to playing Bounder.

Sound is excellent and will particularly be appreciated by those of us brought up in the 8 bit era of chip tunes. The bouncy, fun tune that accompanies the game is perfectly suited to the action and will soon get into your head and you’ll find yourself humming it at all sorts of odd times.

As previously mentioned, the game is a very faithful recreation and that this is something of a double-edged sword. Like the original, the gameplay is rock hard. There’s a lot of trial and error involved; you will die frequently and quickly (there’s a reason you get more than the usual 3 lives and can pick up extra ones) and Bounder makes no concessions to modern gaming sensibilities by easing up. Bounder is one tough game and there are times when the balance between challenge and frustration tips too far in the direction of the latter. Practice and patience do pay off though: every time you play, you get just that little bit further and, because it is so challenging, you feel a much greater sense of achievement when you finally complete a level. However, the very high difficulty level has the potential to put people off before they’ve really got to grips with it. This is one of the areas where the game is just a little too faithful – toning down the difficulty (or at least offering different levels of difficulty) might have made the game more accessible for casual/non-retro gamers.

The other area where the game is a little too faithful is in the use of level password codes, allowing you to skip levels already completed. I am King of the Wrongly Written Level Password. If there is a letter I can miss out or transpose, then trust me, I will. Whilst it would have been a diversion from the original, allowing you to choose your starting point from a level map would have been a more user-friendly approach.

Finally, we have to address the bane of mobile gaming: the controls. Here it’s a case of The Good(ish), The Bad(ish), and the Ugly. Taking them in reverse order, the Ugly is the virtual joystick (the default option). For a game that requires such precise control, it’s just not responsive enough and, despite being transparent, can make it difficult to see some hazards. Swipe controls are better, but I still didn’t find them responsive enough and found myself frequently dying because of that, rather than through my own ineptitude (although I did die plenty of times because of that too!)

The big surprise is the Tilt controls. With a bit of practice, these give you that fine level of control that you need. It’s still not perfect and it’s too easy to die because you tilted your phone just a bit too far, but I found it’s the one that works best. Even so, it would be nice to see the developer add support for a Bluetooth controller in a later version. For this reason it’s likely that the planned Switch or PS Vita versions will be even better, thanks to the physical controller.

Bounder is available in two versions: a free, ad-supported version and a paid-for (£2.49) version that gets rid of the ads and has more levels. At that price, it’s a great buy that offers a massive amount of challenge. It’s not a game you’re likely to play in long spells (at least not without throwing your phone out of the window in frustration), but its addictive nature makes sure you’ll keep coming back. On the strength of this, I can only hope that the developer tackles some more of Gremlin’s back catalogue.

This recommendation does come with a small caveat as the unforgiving gameplay will not be to everyone’s tastes. I’d suggest downloading the free version and giving it a fair go (that means you will need to practice and be patient!). If you like that, the small price to upgrade to the full version is more than justified. If you don’t, at least you’ve had a brief history lesson and learned how tough games used to be before infinite lives and regular save points!

Note: a free, full, unlocked copy of the Android version was provided by the developer for review purposes. As per RetroReactiv8’s Review Policy, this has in no way influenced the content of the review



Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of by Stuart Ashen [Book Review]

Terrible Old Games

I don’t know about you, but writing a bad review always seems so much easier and more fun than writing a good one. I’m not a nasty person (honestly!), but it is a lot simpler to heap ridicule on something truly awful than to write a more balanced review about something that is good (or even just mediocre). It’s a shame really, as no-one ever sets out to release a poor game (except perhaps US Gold with World Cup Carnival) and ridiculing their efforts does sometimes seem a little harsh.

That aside, I suspect that Stuart Ashen, author of Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of, would agree that bad reviews are fun to write. After all, he’s managed to get two books out of it.

When I first got hold of the book, I was a little concerned. The book is pretty small (about the size of a Mr. Man book) and I was worried that the actual coverage of the games was going to be pretty superficial. This volume, however, proves that size isn’t everything, it gives a decent amount of in-depth coverage to each game, with typically 3-4 pages devoted to each one. Each entry is also well-illustrated, with several full colour images for every game featured, usually accompanied by an amusing caption. It’s a really well put together book, visually appealing and well-written.

The selection of titles is impressive. Ashen has deliberately avoided the usual suspects (ET on the Atari, Superman on the Nintendo) and cast his net wider. Most of the games featured are from the popular 8 and 16 bit systems (C64, Spectrum Amiga, Atari ST), although a few titles from more minor systems are included (Dragon 32, Oric etc.) Some will be disappointed that the book only covers actual computers (automatically excluding bad console games), but since this is my own gaming heritage, I preferred this approach.

Each entry contains Ashen’s own musings on his experience (either at the time of release or subsequently) of playing the game, together with his observations on just how bad it is. To say that these are funny is something of an understatement. He has a brilliant turn of phrase and, as the mood takes him, can be funny, absurd and sarcastic about the titles he has selected. Moreover, despite the book’s subject matter, it never feels nasty or mean-spirited. Whilst Ashen certainly makes it clear just how bad some of these titles are, there’s always a sense that he retains an underlying fondness for them on certain levels, despite their awfulness.

When I say this book is funny, I really, REALLY mean it. Frankly, it should come with a government health warning not to read it in public for fear of embarrassing yourself. It didn’t just make me laugh out loud, there were several times when I could actually hardly breathe for laughing so much. The humour is also pretty universal. Whilst it’s obviously going to appeal mainly to gamers, you don’t have to be one to find the book funny. I read several passages to Mrs. RetroReactiv8 (who has never played a computer game in her life) and they made her laugh out loud too. Just taking one random example, I defy anyone to read the Highlander review and not find it funny.

Interspersed amongst the entries are a number of articles written by other contributors, recalling the games they most regretted buying. The range of authors is decent, including both people with the industry (Jeff Minter, Violet Berlin) and ordinary gamers. However, these entries are actually rather variable in quality, and none are as good as the main entries. I’d much rather have read more of Ashen’s own reviews than some of these guest articles. In fact, I felt they worked to the detriment of the book, breaking the flow that Ashen has created with unwanted musings. It’s also true that I felt that the book fizzled out a little towards the end, with some of the later entries producing smiles rather than belly laughs, this is a minor quibble.

Ashen might be an expert on terrible old games, but he’s also a dab hand at writing excellent new books. I’ve already got the sequel (the brilliantly named Attack of the Flickering Skeletons) and will no doubt soon be annoying Mrs. RetroReactiv8 all over again, by laughing out loud and reading out random passages to her, whilst struggling to breathe!

Virtual Cities: an Atlas Mapping and Exploring over 40 Video Game Cities

I’m always happy to try and help a fellow gamer and retrogamer try to get a project off the ground, so I thought you might be interested in this.

Author and game designer/writer Konstantinos Dimopoulos has been in touch about his new project, Virtual Cities – the very first atlas of video game cities, being produced in conjunction with visual artist Maria Kallikaki

The book is being published by Unbound – which is where you come in. Unbound’s publishing model is essentially a crowdfunding one – when a book reaches a certain level of  pre-orders or pledges, they will go ahead and publish it. So, if you want to see Virtual Cities become a reality, Konstantinos would welcome your support.

This 200 page hardback book will provide a detailed look at  40 game cities across literary and gaming genres, including detailed entries on Half-Life 2’s City 17, Grand Theft Auto V’s Los Santos, Yakuza’s Kamurocho, Fallout’s New Vegas, Silent Hill, Ant Attack’s Antescher, and Shadowrun’s Hong Kong. It will feature over 40 original maps and more than 100 drawings, as well as in-depth analysis and commentary.

If you’d like a sneak preview of the book, there’s an excerpt online, along with a preview of some of the visual assets.

Head over to Unbound to find out more or to pledge your support.

Hyper Sentinel (PC) Review

Hyper Sentinel

I have a small confession to make: despite being a dyed-in-the-wool C64 owner back in the 80s, I’ve never really played Uridium, generally recognized as one of the finest shooters the machine can offer. It’s not that I don’t like the game, it’s just that I never owned a copy and didn’t really know anyone who did.

Happily, I can now rectify that mistake with the excellent Hyper Sentinel, a Uridium-inspired game from veteran publisher Hewson Consultants/Huey Games, originally funded via KickStarter and available to buy for (via Steam), PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. Android and iOS versions are coming soon.

As with Uridium, you fly a lone spacecraft over a series of huge motherships, taking out the ground installations and avoiding or shooting smaller enemy ships as they attack you. Each ship has its own boss (or Guardian) which has to be defeated before the level is complete. Temporary power-ups can be collected to boost either your ship’s arsenal or your score.

It’s fair to say that Hyper Sentinel doesn’t really offer anything new. The basic gameplay has been heavily influenced by Uridium, with additional elements borrowed from other shoot-em ups. However, when a game is this good, the lack of originality is not the stumbling block it might be in a weaker title.

The game has a pleasingly retro look. Graphics are simple and blocky, aping the pixel art of the 80s but everything has been given a lick of neon paint to give the visuals a more modern twist. They are never going to win any art competitions, but if you appreciate pixel art, the game’s look will instantly appeal. The sound also blends modern with retro. A pulsating tune accompanies each level, supplemented by some excellent 8 bit style sound effects. This is definitely a game Spinal Tap would turn up to 11.

Hyper Sentinel level

It’s the gameplay that matters, though, and it’s here that Hyper Sentinel really shines. There’s always been something pure about old-style shoot ‘em ups and the kill or be killed gameplay makes Hyper Sentinel instantly accessible – the simple controls and basic gameplay make for a great pick up and play title. And once you start playing, you won’t want to stop. The fast-paced action, the determination to beat your high score (or those on the online leaderboards) or reach the next level keeps you coming back for more. I guarantee that every time you die, you will find it hard to resist pressing “Retry”. Hyper Sentinel is the definition of a “just one more go” title.

It also has hidden depths which add to its longevity. It uses the same “flip” technique as Uridium to temporarily render you invulnerable (it’s critical to learn how to use this properly to make real progress) and introduces power-ups. The end of level bosses and different game modes (Arcade, Survival, Boss) add an extra dimension and challenge, whilst the game also features an excellent risk-reward element. Rather than a single hit destroying your ship, you have an energy bar and only die once that is empty. If you keep out of danger, the energy bar will slowly replenish, but this comes at a cost. If you want to get those really high scores, you need to keep your score multiplier high, but the only way to do this is to constantly shoot stuff; if you don’t it plummets faster than a UK entry at Eurovision. And, of course, to shoot stuff, you have to fly into the thick of the action, meaning the risk of taking further damage (and dying) is increased. This mechanism is brilliantly implemented and makes for some finely balanced gameplay.

Hyper Sentinel offers a real challenge. As the levels progress, enemies get more numerous and more aggressive, and flying over the giant spaceships gets harder as impassible walls mean you have to choose your flightpath carefully. Crucially, though, the game never feels unfair. When you die, it’s usually either because you’ve done something stupid, or got so caught up in the blasting action, you’ve failed to keep an eye on your energy levels.

If I had to be hyper critical of Hyper Sentinel (see what I did there?!), some of the sprites can be a little hard to see and too easy to accidentally crash into. The biggest bugbear, though, is the way the level freezes to announce an end-of-level boss is also a touch frustrating. Time it wrong, and you have to sit and watch a load of Points pick-ups or weapon power-ups floating up the screen, whilst you are rooted to the spot, unable to collect them.

Hyper Sentinel is an excellent game. It’s fundamentally a retro game that’s been given enough modern twists to make it feel worthwhile, but not so many that they overwhelm the old school action. It’s fast, it’s frantic and, boy, it’s addictive.

I don’t normally score games on RetroReactiv8, but in keeping with the C64 inspired title, for once I’m going to score it in the style of a Zzap!64 review.

Presentation:    78%
Nothing flashy, but all the options you’d expect – online leaderboards and multiple game modes.

Graphics: 68%
It won’t win any art prizes, but graphics are pleasingly retro.

Sound: 83%
A thumping soundtrack and pleasingly retro spot effects

Hookability: 94%
Once you hit that fire button, say goodbye to your evening.

Lastability: 92%
The game offers a real challenge, whilst the different game modes and online leaderboards will keep you coming back

Value for Money: 83%
At around £12 for the Steam version and adjusted for inflation this is cheaper than a C64 game cost back in the 80s.

Overall: 93%
An excellent updating of a Commodore classic.

In Defence of… Pac-Man (Atari 2600)

An occasional series looking at providing a defence for games that all too often get a bad press…

Pac-Man 2600

There was a great article in Retro Gamer issue 179 on the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man, its critical panning on release and how today, it is still widely regarded as a “bad game” and a “poor conversion” because it was so different to its arcade counterpart.

In the article, programmer Tod Frye argued that it wasn’t a bad game at all; that at the time Pac-Man was released, the now-accepted principles of a “faithful conversion” didn’t exist. And whilst Atari Pac-Man was different, it captured the spirit of it, whilst working within the technical limitations of the machine.

I have to say, I’m with Todd on this one. My friend had an Atari 2600 and the three games that we played most were Tank (still a great two player game), Space Invaders and, yes, Pac-Man. With little exposure to broader views at the time (this was long before game review mags were a common feature of newsagents’ shelves) I had no idea that many dismissed Pac-Man. All I knew was that I enjoyed playing it and I still associate it with some very happy memories.

I can remember my friend and I spending hours playing the game. It was usually the title we loaded up at the start of our gaming sessions and the one we’d go back to for one last go when we were told it was time to pack up. I can remember my friend’s dad (who didn’t usually play computer games) joining us each time the game appeared, merrily (and badly!) singing Elvis’ “Caught in a Trap” every time a ghost threatened to corner him. Even my friend’s mum (even less keen on computer games than his dad) was known to have a go.

So I guess my question is: can something that brought so much enjoyment to two 10 year olds, which unexpectedly brought the whole family together, be a “bad game”? Surely not. Sure, with the benefit of 40 years of accumulated knowledge, it might be a “poor conversion” in the now—understood sense of the term, but at the end of the day, the primary purpose of a game is to entertain; and for us, it did that in spades.

Perhaps you could argue that we were only about 10 and relatively new to computer games (so the novelty value was higher and we were likely to be more forgiving). You could rightly point out that we had only limited exposure to the arcades, so were not that familiar with “proper” Pac-Man. You could reasonably suggest that I am looking back with rose-tinted glasses and that if I played it now, the flaws would be all-too-obvious. All of those things are undoubtedly true to a greater of lesser extent, but the point is to, us at the time, Pac-Man was a good game that gave us hours of fun and entertainment. How can that be a bad thing?

Whatever flaws it might have had, it was obviously, recognisably, a Pac-Man game. You played a circular little chap who ran around a maze eating dots and running away from (and sometimes chasing) ghosts. I know purists will argue that the colour scheme was different, the mazes changed and so on, but I agree with Todd Frye’s assessment that it captured the essence of a Pac-Man game, even if it wasn’t quite the definitive version people might have hoped for. (After all, do those same people slam the Atari Version of Space Invaders for not being a “faithful conversion” just because it included multiple options and game variants that weren’t on the original arcade game? I think not.)

Accepted wisdom, accumulated over the past 40 odd years, now means it’s almost compulsory to slam games like Pac Man or ET, but I try to judge things on their relative merits and make up my own mind. Yes, it’s a flawed conversion; yes, with the benefit of hindsight, there were some odd design decisions, but it was still fun. More importantly, it was a major part of my childhood and an early gateway to a lifetime of enjoying (sometimes enduring!) computer games. For that alone, I will defend Pac-Man against all-comers.

C64 Mini Review

Sometimes the Gaming Gods both smile on you and curse you at the same time. When I saw that the C64 Mini was due to be released on 29 March, it was great timing as far as I was concerned. I took the rebirth of my beloved C64 on the day after my birthday as an omen and dropped many *ahem* subtle hints to the lovely Mrs. RetroReactiv8, who did indeed pre-order one as a slightly delayed birthday gift.

Of course, those same Gaming Gods couldn’t bear me to be entirely happy, so whilst my C64 Mini was indeed delivered on 29 March, I wasn’t in when it arrived. Sadly, it was taken back the post office depot, where it spent a long, lonely Easter Bank Holiday weekend before I could rescue it. Four days knowing my Mini was less than a mile away, yet unobtainable, was like some sort of torture.

Happily, though, it was definitely worth the wait because one or two niggles aside, it’s easily one of my best retro gaming purchases.

C64 Mini - box

It’s clear that this product is aimed firmly at capturing that nostalgia element and boy does it succeed. The whole thing came in a great looking box with the contents well packed. It really did take me back to that Christmas in about 1983 when I first unwrapped my original C64. I felt that same tingle of excitement as I carefully unpacked all the bits and this continued when I saw the actual device. I hesitate to use the word “cute” about a piece of hardware, but there is something undeniably attractive about it. The phrase “small but perfectly formed” could have been invented for the C64 Mini. It’s a great looking device that looks perfectly at home alongside some of my larger consoles.

C64 mini - top down

From a setup point of view, it’s well designed too. Plug in the HDMI cable (supplied) and attach the USB power cable and away you go. It’s slightly odd that the device comes with a power cable but not a plug to put it in (presumably to cut costs), but most people are likely to have a plug lying around that can be used. Cables are sufficiently long so that you can attach it to your TV and sit a decent length back it (essential for my ageing gamer’s eyes!). The design has been really well thought out and it truly is plug and play – mine was up and running less than a minute after removing it from the box.

The selection screen for the games is also great, presenting them in a rotating carousel that includes the original box artwork and a brief explanation of the game’s plot/aims. It would have been nice to see the instructions for each game included on this screen rather than just on the website (particularly for the Games series, where each event has different controls) and I don’t really understand why this approach was taken, but it’s not that big a deal. You can also access BASIC from the carousel, giving you the chance to relearn your advanced programming skills by typing things like:

10 Print “Spectrum owners smell”

20 Goto 10

However nice it all looks, though, the bottom line rests on how good the included games are. Previous devices like this have had two key weaknesses: the selection of games has ranged from excellent to makeweight titles whilst the locked down systems have prevented the addition of any further titles. Not so the Mini C64.

Firstly, the included titles are very strong. You get 64 (what else?!) pre-packed games and it’s hard to spot a weak one amongst them. Sure, there are some that I like more than others and some that I’ve no doubt I’ll rarely play, but this is down to personal preference rather than quality (all the included games scored highly in various magazines in their original incarnations). There are plenty of titles fully deserving the description “classic”: Pitstop II, California/World Games/Summer Games II, Uridium, Armalyte, Monty Mole, Boulder Dash… I could go on. Indeed, I spent the first 10 minutes just scrolling and getting more and more excited at the range of games. You can argue till the cows come home that this game or that game should have been included, but at the end of the day, within the complex restrictions of licensing and rights, the developers have assembled an excellent collection.

Anyway, this is where the Mini C64’s other advantage kicks in. Unlike similar retro systems (Recreated ZX Spectrum, Mini NES/SNES), you can actually add your own games via a USB stick. Admittedly, the process for doing so is currently a little cumbersome. You can only use .d64 (disk image) files and you can only store one game on a single memory stick and need to rename it to a specific filename before the system will recognise it,. However Retro Games Ltd have promised to make this easier via a future firmware update, so hopefully this is a short term irritation, rather than a long-term problem. In any case, certain clever people have already provided information online as to how to get round this whilst you’re waiting for the fix. Essentially, though, the ability to load up games of your own opens up the system, allowing you to play pretty much any C64 game.

In my brief experience to date, emulation works well. I’ve not yet played the full range of games, so can’t say that it’s flawless, but certainly I’ve been impressed so far. I’ve seen a few complaints online that certain games run too fast or suffer from a bit of lag, but either I’ve not experienced this or am not familiar enough with the original games to spot it.

The big disappointment is the joystick included with the package. It’s modelled on the Competition Pro (nothing wrong with that) but is sadly nowhere near the same quality. It’s pretty obvious that this is where corners have been cut to reduce production costs. It’s perhaps not as bad as some people are making out online, but it’s a long (long) way from being great. For a “modern” joystick, it’s surprisingly uncomfortable to hold – after just 10 minutes my hand was aching like it used to when I played on my friend’s old Atari 2600. It’s also not as responsive as you’d hope or expect. It’s OK for some titles, but any game that requires finesse or twitch responses will be a struggle. I lost count of the number of times I lost a life on some games because it just doesn’t allow the pixel perfect positioning needed by so many old games. It’s a shame because the rest of the package is excellent, but the joystick lets it down badly.

It’s true that other USB controllers and joysticks can be attached via the in-built USB ports, but it seems to be very hit and miss as to which ones will work. I’d strongly advise you to look on the forums on the Mini C64 website for advice on compatible devices before you buy.

Joystick issues aside, though, Retro Computers Ltd have assembled a very impressive package. Most of the issues I have are minor ones that could be easily addressed through future updates. Like all these devices, you could argue that £65-£75 is a lot when you could set up an emulator on your laptop for free, but there’s definitely a greater sense of nostalgia playing the games on a replica machine. And at the end of the day, for your £65 you get 64 ready to play games, plus the option to add in others. Personally, I consider that money well spent.

Retro Games Ltd should be applauded. They have delivered a product that has appeal for both the existing C64 community and more casual gamers who want a blast from the past. As a dyed-in-the-wool C64 fan (and former owner) you could say I’m biased, but I am waaaaaaay more impressed by this device than any other similar consoles that I own. Retro Games Ltd., I salute you.