Top Ten Tunes in games

Although I do them only rarely, my Top 10 features (Top 10 C64 games, Part 1 and Part 2; Top 10 Adventure Games, Part 1 and Part 2) tend to be quite popular, so I thought I’d do another one: this time based around game music.

From early on music has been an important part of the gaming experience. Good music sticks in your memory (I can still recall all the tunes in this feature clearly, even though I’ve not played some of the games for years); bad music has you reaching for the mute button to save your ears and your sanity. Gaming musicians deserve to be considered legends of the industry in exactly the same way that programmers are and it’s about time this blog recognised their contribution.

The trouble was, as soon as I started making my list, I knew it was going to be difficult. In the 35 years or so that I’ve been a gamer, there has been some truly outstanding music and whittling it down was hard. To make life easier, I set some ground rules.

RULE 1: No music from CD-based games. This era produced some fabulous music, but the retrogamer in me has always admired the incredible music programmers in the pre-CD age managed to put together despite having so little memory or storage to work with.

RULE 2: 8 and 16-bit games only. Effectively, Rule 1 forces this decision, but I’m happy to go with it, since I’ve always thought of chip tunes as the purest form of computer game music.

RULE 3: Commodore 64 and Amiga Games are your friend. Again, this follows logically from Rules 1 and 2. They were the systems I had growing up, so they are the games I’m most familiar with.

Even with these rules, selecting a final 10 was almost borderline impossible. My first “shortlist” had over 100 candidates (and I thought I was being ruthless when I selected it!). Every time I thought I’d settled on the final 10, I’d have doubts: “But what about ‘x’” or “Surely ‘y’ deserves a place.” In the end, it came down to these titles. They are in no order (other than alphabetical) – selecting them was difficult enough – trying to rank them would have been the end of me!

So here we go with the first 5.

(Note: where possible I’ve provided links to YouTube videos containing the music, which will open in a separate window. I’ve had no hand in making these, so thanks to the various YouTubers for making them available.)

1. Aladdin (Amiga)

[Full Retroreactiv8 review here]

The music throughout Aladdin was incredible. A different tune for every level, with most (all?) adapted from the film’s music. Composers Donald Griffin and Tommy Tallarico did an incredible job throughout. The standout moment, however, had to be the title screen when your Amiga suddenly started singing along to A Whole New World. OK, it was only about lines or so, but I had never heard such a thing in a commercial Amiga game before and it was simply breathtaking. I remember subsequently playing the Megadrive version (generally held to be a slightly superior game) and being massively disappointed that it didn’t feature the singing. 1-0 to Commodore’s Mighty Machine!

2. Battle Valley (Commodore 64)

As I mentioned in my review of Hewson Consultants’ Hints and Tips for Videogame Pioneers audio CD, Battle Valley brings back very specific memories of an early trip to London where I bought the game in the old Virgin Megastore. Misty-eyed memories aside, it’s the tune by Jeroen Tel that really makes the game standout out. From the strident opening chords, it grabs you by the unmentionables and demands to be listened to. The game itself was a decent, value-for-money budget title, but the tune was worthy of a Triple A full price release.

3. Bubble Bobble (Commodore 64)

[Full RetroReactiv8 review here]

Looked at from a logical point of view, this wasn’t a great piece of music. It was lightweight, rather tinkly and repetitive. But that’s the point: it was perfectly suited to the game and after just a few minutes, it was almost impossible not to be singing along to it. The amount I played Bubble Bobble, I’m sure it annoyed the hell out of my mum, but I thought (and still do) that it was a great tune to accompany one of the C64’s best games.

4. Cannon Fodder (Amiga)

If Aladdin was impressive for fitting in four lines of singing, Cannon Fodder was something else, giving us a whole song. Composed by the late, great Richard Joseph and Sensible Software’s Jon Hare, the song was simply brilliant – catchy, quirky and perfectly suited to the game (fun, but with slightly darker overtones). Even allowing for the increased technical capabilities of the Amiga, it was still an achievement to cram a whole song into the game. Sure it added to the loading times, but it was worth every extra second.

5. Forbidden Forest (Commodore 64)

[Full RetroReactiv8 review here]

One of my earliest C64 gaming memories, but a timeless classic. The blocky graphics, varied enemies and slightly unnerving gameplay made it different to anything else out there, and the music was no exception. Two pieces stand out in particular: the title screen music with its energetic, slightly ominous feel and the archer’s victory dance tune. Both superb compositions that really made the C64 sing.

 

So we get to the end of Part One. If there are any of your personal favourites missing from the list, don’t shout at me just yet – they might feature in Part 2 (unless of course they being with A-F, in which case you can shout!)

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Paul Woakes: a tribute

I was sad to see a tweet earlier today from ex-ZZap! writer Julian Rignall announcing that he had just heard that Paul Woakes, author of the Mercenary games died last year, unknown to most in the retro gaming community.

I was going to post a review today. Instead, I thought it would be more appropriate to post a short tribute to Paul and his games. I didn’t know him personally and haven’t played all of his games, but I do feel that news of his death deserves to be noted. I’m sure there will be many other tributes posted online over the course of the next few days, many by people far better placed to comment on his influence. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here’s my personal tribute.

Unlike many of my friends, I wasn’t massively into Mercenary, but even at the age of around 14 I could see what an incredible title it was. At a time when most games were linear, allowing you only to undertake pre-determined actions and go where the programmer had decided, Mercenary offered far greater freedom to explore. The game had a plot and goals, but how you achieved this, and how long it took was entirely up to you. This was a revolutionary concept at the time and the incredible world Woakes created made for an immersive experience where players would often (literally and metaphorically) get lost for hours.

It’s also clear from his games that he was an incredibly talented programmer. Mercenary really pushed the boundaries of gaming at the time, cramming an entire planet into less than 64k of memory – whilst still running at a fair old speed and offering complex and nuanced gameplay. Received wisdom (then and now) said the Commodore 64 wasn’t good with vector graphics. Woakes certainly proved that wrong. The clarity and fluidity of the graphics remain deeply impressive today – more so when you remember the limited technology and tools programmers back then had to work with.

Whilst he is probably (deservedly) be best remembered for the Mercenary series, he was certainly no one-trick pony. Encounter was a blisteringly fast game inspired by the arcade classic Battlezone (scoring a deserved 90% in Zzap! Issue 5) that is my personal favourite of Paul Woakes’ games and still stands up today as a fast-paced, addictive and challenging game.

Equally of note was his creation of the Novaload system, which sped up the loading of games from tapes and made possible some limited entertainment (such as music being played during loading) to keep young gamers’ minds occupied during those often tortuous loading times.

The start of 2018 hasn’t been a good one. Last month we lost the talented Bob Wakelin, whose iconic and varied art graced many cassette covers and magazine adverts, today we learn of the death of Paul Woakes. Sadly, we are going to have to get used to news like this. Like us, our gaming heroes from the 80s are growing older and starting to succumb to the ravages of time.

That’s why retro gaming sites are so important – they help to keep alive the memories of the great games of the era, and the incredibly talented programmers, artists and musicians who created them.

Trap Door (C64) Review

Trap Door title screen

Piranha Software may only have existed for a short period, but they used their time well to release some cracking games that generally made good use of the licensed properties they secured.

One of their best s was also one of their earliest – Trap Door – based on the animated kid’s TV programme of the same name. I’d never watched the programme, but as soon as I saw the Zzap!64 review, I knew I had to have it.

You played as Berk, unfortunate general dogs body to the ill-tempered Thing. Gameplay was pretty simple. Thing shouted down what he wanted you to eat and you had to make the meal, making use of the objects that were lying around and also opening the titular Trap Door to release. Some of these would be the ingredients you needed to make Thing’s meal; others would just cause a nuisance and had to be returned to the Trap Door before you could continue. Fail to prepare a meal in time and Thing would get Very Angry Indeed, which was not good for poor old Berk.

Being a fairly shallow sort of 15-year-old at the time of its release, it’s fair to say that the first thing that attracted me to the game was the graphics. It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time I think most of us were convinced that Trap Door’s huge bold and bright graphics could only have been achieved by some sort of witchcraft. They gave the game an instant visual appeal and set it apart from pretty much every other title of the time. I mean, just look at them. They’re HUUUUUUUGE!!!

Trap Door game screen 2 USE THIS ONE

The music was also highly impressive. This is one of a small number of games where I would sit watching the title screen and listening to the music for several minutes before I hit Start. Composer David Dunn did a great job of converting the cartoon music into a C64 chip tune. Indeed, I can remember – several months after this game was released – seeing the cartoon on TV for the first time, and being disappointed that it was subtly different to the game. I’d argue that Dunn’s rendition is far superior and if anyone thinks otherwise, I’ll shove them down the Trap Door.

Superficial wow factor aside, Don Priestley’s adaptation had a solid game behind it too. Sure, you could argue that the big graphics didn’t leave much room for a complex game and so it wasn’t anything revolutionary (it was essentially a puzzle game that involved collecting and using the right items in the right way), but boy was it addictive. Once you started playing, whole hours could swiftly disappear and, no matter how many times you failed (and you would, repeatedly), you kept hitting that fire button to try again (after a brief pause to listen to the title screen music several times, of course).

In good old 8-bit tradition, the game was both tough and frustrating. The things that emerged from the Trap Door were not necessarily the things that you needed to complete your task, and games often consisted of you frantically (usually vainly) trying to re-capture something that had emerged in the hope that next time, the right thing would appear. From memory, I don’t think I ever successfully served up a single meal to Thing (let alone the multiple meals required to beat the game.) I seem to remember that I once managed to collect two out of the three required ingredients and NEARLY managed to get hold of third, but ran out of time. Such was the game’s toughness that I honestly think that that is the closest I ever came to success.

It didn’t matter though. Trap Door was just so much damn fun, so good to look at and listen to, that I just kept playing regardless of how inept I made Berk look. The game also had a sense of humour that helped alleviate the frustration somewhat. Whilst Berk’s “friend” Boney (a skull) would give you helpful hints about what to do, you could also pick him up and drop him down the Trap Door. This didn’t achieve anything useful, but it did sometimes make you feel a little better about your constant, abject failure.

Trap Door was a cracking game and showed how, with a little bit of imagination, a licensed game could be both a decent game, yet faithful to its source material, rather than just knocking up a series of mini-games based around key scenes (yes, Ocean Software, I’m looking at you). It was an all-too-rare example of a licence done well. It’s just a shame it didn’t do well enough commercially to keep Piranha afloat.

I never played any of Piranha’s other “big character” games (Flunky, Popeye) or indeed this game’s sequel (Through the Trap Door). I had no need to – Trap Door gave me everything I needed. And maybe that also explains why Piranha lasted just two short years before folding – no-one bought their subsequent games because they were all too busy trying to collect the damn ingredients needed to make Thing’s dinner.

Well, it’s a thought…

100 Best Video Games (that never existed) by Nate Crowley [Book Review]

100 best video games

I sort of asked for this book under a false impression. When I first suggested to my nearest and dearest that Santa might like to deliver it for Christmas I thought (based on the title alone) that it was a book about games that were planned, but never saw the light of day (a print companion to something like Frank Gasking’s Games That Weren’t website). In fact, it goes even further than that. The games in question were never even floated as possible ideas. Indeed, they have never been anything more than the product of author Nate Crowley’s mind.

Let me explain. Instead of writing a proper book about proper old games, Mr. Crowley decided to take a more left-field turn and make up some games. Then he wrote some stuff about them. This probably sounds to you like a very odd premise for a book- and you’d be absolutely right. The result is an insane mix of crazy ideas, made up games, imaginary development houses and fake screenshots. It has no right to work. It should be a disaster. It should have gamers jumping up and down protesting about being made fun of. Yet somehow it doesn’t.

On the evidence of this book, all I can say is that Nate Crowley’s mind is a very odd place – and I mean that in the nicest possible sense. Some of the game concepts he comes up with are odd, surreal, weird, stupid and (just occasionally) all too plausible. He clearly has a pretty decent knowledge of both game design tropes and gaming systems, which helps the book to retain an authentic feel, even when you know it’s all completely made up.

Many of his “games” are based around well-known genres combined with a bizarre, random element (for example, a management sim that revolves around keeping both a cat and a space station happy and operational or a resource management sim based around Noah’s Ark). This mix of plausibility and stupidity helps to stop the book from ever quite becoming either too serious or too ridiculous and gives it sufficient scope to introduce some really daft ideas.

Each entry follows a similar format – a two-page profile of the “game” providing an overview of what it was about, followed by a short “verdict” on its impact, playability or importance to gaming history. The book gets extra marks because each main entry is accompanied by some spurious (and equally fake) artwork, including “screenshots”, “cassette inlays” and “adverts”. OK, so some of these are little more than photo-shopped versions of real games (Kabage, for example, looks very like a Marble Madness or Spindizzy screenshot with a cabbage substituted for the player’s avatar). Most, however, have been done from scratch.

The text itself is often very funny, although this obviously comes with the caveat that humour is a very personal thing. Happily, my brain clearly operates on a similar level to Mr. Crowley’s (this is probably a fact that should worry both of us) and I appreciated the dry, tongue in cheek, surreal (and sometimes stupid) humour. There were many, many times when the book made me laugh out loud, much to the dismay of Mrs. RetroReactiv8, who doesn’t understand the appeal of real computer games, let alone made-up ones. Not all the entries work, but on the whole there are far more hits than misses (Star Trek: Bee on the Bridge and Work Kitchen Anecdote Bastard were particular highlights for me). Some of the developer names were particularly inspired (and again, often all-too-plausible).

Of course, the crux of this book really lies in whether or not you get Nate Crowley’s humour. If you have an appreciation of gaming history and possess a slightly off-beat sense of humour (and are willing to laugh at how pointless (conceptually) the idea of gaming is), then you will find much to like. If you don’t share Crowley’s surreal way of looking at the world, the book might come across as childish or stupid (a view which is likely to be reinforced by the book’s frequent (and often unnecessary) use of profanity, particularly the “F” word). On the whole, though, I’d say that if you’re a gamer, you’ll certainly find something within these pages to raise a smile.

It’s certainly a book that benefits from being dipped into rather than reading from cover to cover. I found it best to read a few entries a day, then put the book down and read something else. If you read it like a normal book and just plough through from beginning to end, you’ll start to spot certain patterns, or be hit by the realization that some of the ideas are repeated with a slightly different focus (but then isn’t that also true of real gaming, where the same basic concepts are endlessly repackaged with new graphics, sound, characters and plots?)

I’ve read lots of books on retro gaming over the years, but this one was very refreshing thanks to its different approach and silly humour. It’s a clever title that combines plausibility with silliness and which takes a fond look at gaming, whilst simultaneously poking fun at the whole industry. Definitely worth a read.

8bitdo Zero Bluetooth Gamepad [Review]

As you might expect from someone who writes a blog on the subject, I enjoy playing games. One of the best developments over the past 10 years or so has been the re-emergence of smaller, indie games, thanks to the Apple and Google Play Stores.

The creation of those have seen an explosion of titles for gaming on the go, as well as opening up the possibility of playing older games via emulation on your tablet or phone. Yet great though this is, one constant gripe (from me at least) has been the issue of virtual controls which make some games far more difficult than they would be with a physical controller.

Of course, solutions do exist in the shape of physical Bluetooth controllers. I own an iCade, for example, for my iOS games, but that’s only effective up to a point. For a start, it’s only supported by a relatively small number of games and secondly, whilst it works fine in the home, it’s rather too big and bulky for true mobile gaming.

That’s not a problem you are going to have with the 8bidDo Zero Bluetooth controller which is at totally the other end of the scale. Measuring just 2.75 inches by 1.5 inches it’s the very definition of portable. It will easily slip into a pocket or attach to your keys, weighing little more than a standard USB stick. Perfect for adding a physical controller to your mobile phone without adding much to the stuff you have to carry around with you all day.

8bitdo zero

Although it’s tiny, it’s well thought out and is a fully-formed controller with everything you’d expect – a D-Pad on the left hand side, four buttons on the right, shoulder buttons, and Start and Select buttons. Initial fears that the controller might be a little too small soon disappear. The buttons are surprisingly well-spaced and it feels comfortable and natural to hold. The buttons are also well enough defined that it’s easy to quickly find the one you need, without accidentally pressing the wrong thing. It would be nice if the buttons were differentiated by colour (they are all white with white labels) to make life a bit easier, but you can’t have everything. Most important of all, the controller is responsive with no lag between pressing and the corresponding action being carried out on screen.

Battery life is also impressive. Using it on average for around 45-60 minutes a day most weekdays, I’ve found that I generally only need to charge it up about once a month. If only my phone and iPad were that good at power consumption!

The biggest issue with the 8bitDo Zero is the setup. Pairing it with other Bluetooth devices is straightforward enough, but getting it to work properly with different platforms takes a bit of working out. There are two issues: firstly, each device requires a different combination of key presses to start it up in the correct mode (to enable it as a gamepad with Android devices, for example, you press the Start button; to start it in iCade compatible mode, it’s Start +A). These take a bit of getting used to and, if you start it up in the wrong mode, you’ll find your controller either not responding at all or doing all sorts of weird and wonderful things when you try and use it.

The second issue is the instructions, which are… well, perhaps brief is the kindest word to use. They are also really badly translated and hard to interpret. I spent ages trying to get the controller set up and was starting to get really frustrated and/or become convinced that I’d bought a dud unit. Happily, a search on that there new-fangled inter-web thingy eventually revealed that other people had experienced exactly the same problems, and provided far clearer instructions which helped me to finally get it up and running properly.

The only other issues I’ve experienced is that the controller doesn’t necessarily work with every game on every platform, so there’s a bit of trial and error involved sometimes to see if your game is compatible or not (I’ve still to get it working properly with my PC, for example, but I’ve been successful in getting it to work with some emulators). In addition, I’ve yet to investigate whether it’s possible to re-map the controls for particular games (given the difficulties I had setting it up, I’ll just stick with the default options for now!), so you might find a bit more fiddling is necessary for some titles.

Given the price (around £8-10 is standard), the 8bitDo Zero is a really neat solution if you want a small, lightweight but fully featured physical controller to help you with your mobile gaming. It’s a shame the set-up process is a little convoluted, as I suspect some users may give up in frustration, but once you get over this hurdle, it’s definitely a worthwhile purchase.

The Shape of Things to Come

Christmas is a time for families, fun, food and, of course, presents (which sadly don’t start with an “f” and so ruined my wonderfully alliterative opening sentence).

Because the wonderful Mrs RetroReactiv8 tolerates (even if she doesn’t exactly understand) my passion for old computing stuff, she made sure that Santa shoved quite a few retrogaming goodies down my stocking.

Here’s a sneak preview of some of the things I got.

  • Recreated ZX Spectrum – bluetooth keyboard for tablets, complete with a number of old Speccy games.
  • 100 best video games that never existed (book) – a wacky look at some ideas for games that maybe should (but never did) get made.
  • A guide to Spectrum Games 1982-1984 (book) –  a pretty comprehensive tour of two years in the gaming life of Sir Clive’s little machine.

Look forward to reviews of these over the coming weeks as I’ve had chance to read/test them out!

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline [Book Review]

Ready_Player_One

When it comes to books and films, computer games often don’t translate well as subject matter. For every Tron, there’s a Super Mario Brothers, for every Game Boy, an Assassin’s Creed.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline bucks that trend, successfully tapping into the gaming culture (particularly 80s retro gaming) whilst telling an excellent story.

Set in a bleak, dystopian future (is there any other kind?!), it tells the tale of Wade Watts, aka Parzival, a young man who seeks refuge from his awful personal life in a realistic online virtual reality world, called The OASIS (think Second Life on mega steroids). When the creator of The OASIS dies, he leaves a message stating that several riddles and challenges (“easter eggs”) have been hidden inside his world. Whoever manages to find and decipher them will inherit his entire fortune and company.

What follows is an excellent, multi-layered book that is equal parts thriller, mystery and homage to 80s culture (particularly gaming). The story itself is gripping and interesting enough even for non-gamers, although you will certainly get a lot more out of it if you are a fan of 80s arcade games. The sense of an unequal fight between a mega corporation prepared to use all sorts of dirty tricks to win and gain control of the company and the loose, uneasy alliance between Parzival and a small band of other “gunters” (“egg hunters”) is well-told. Whilst the David vs Goliath plotline isn’t particularly original and the final outcome not exactly surprising, these don’t stop making the book a real pleasure to read.

Where the book really succeeds is in creating not just one, but two imaginary worlds. The society in which Wade lives reminded me very much of the one Stephen King created in The Running Man (the book, not the film) – a society sharply divided between the haves and have-nots, where the mass population is left to fend for itself or die. It feels like a very real, unpleasant world, where big corporations rule and the quest for profit takes priority over anything else (sound familiar?). It has more than a few passing resemblances to 21st century society now and it’s not hard to see how we could end up creating this very future if we are not careful.

The world of the OASIS, on the other hand, feels much more appealing and it’s not hard to see why some people choose to spend most of their time in it. It’s essentially a cross between a VR world and an RPG game, with quests complete, skill levels to build and billions of worlds to explore. Any gamer worth their salt will read this and hope that someone builds something like the OASIS very soon, rather than the insipid VR simulations we’ve had to date.

The detail that Cline adds to both of these worlds is incredible. Within both worlds, he creates a superb atmosphere and it doesn’t take long to establish them as “real places” in the reader’s mind. This sense of plausibility is essential, because without it, the narrative would fall apart.

Using the two worlds as a solid foundation, Cline crafts an excellent book around the disconnect between reality and VR. OK, so the plot is little more than a glorified treasure hunt, but it’s so interesting, imaginative and well-written that this lack or originality becomes irrelevant. For older readers or anyone interested in retro gaming or 80s culture, it has an added dimension, referencing the films, music and (particularly) the games of that era. Crucially, these pop culture references don’t feel forced. Like the imaginary worlds, they are an integral part of the plot and critical to the solution of the riddles. Even those sections which initially appear to be diversions (a lengthy account in which Parzival attempts to play the perfect game of Pac Man, for example) eventually become relevant and it’s at these points that you see how cleverly crafted and well-told the story is. The book may be fairly lengthy, but there are few wasted words, and everything that is on the page either adds to the depth and richness of the worlds, or drives the plot forward.

It’s clear that Cline is something of a geek, and the book will really appeal to retro gamers. It’s packed with references to old hardware and games and will provide a real nostalgia blast for anyone over the age of 40. Some of the references are pretty obscure (there were several games that I’d never heard of or played) and it’s clear that Cline has done a tremendous amount of research for the book (or is a serious uber-geek!). For younger gamers who maybe don’t get all the gaming history references, the plot’s RPG-like elements will still be appealing and the plot will be just as strong.

It’s quite a long time since I enjoyed a book as much as Ready Player One. It’s a stunning work of imagination that is very different from most of the uninspired, derivative and copycat books you usually see on the shelves. Not surprisingly, it’s currently being made into a film under the auspices of Steven Spielberg. In theory, this should be a Good Thing, since both they dystopian future and VR world lend themselves to the highly visual medium of cinema. Given Hollywood’s track record with films based around games, though, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Do yourself a favour and read this before it becomes next year’s trendy “must read” book and/or Hollywood ruin it.