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…

Top 10 Adventure Games – Part 2

Introduction

Now that the dust has settled on the controversy of Part 1 (or, more accurately, now that I have time to sit down and write Part 2, it’s time to conclude my Top 10 adventure games of all time. Here we go, starting at number 5…

5. The Hobbit (Commodore 64)

The Hobbit

It was a bit buggy (though not as buggy as the Lord of the Rings sequels), a bit frustrating (critical non-playing characters could go off and get themselves killed, making completing the game impossible) and utterly brilliant.

The Hobbit felt like the first adventure game where characters had a life of their own and weren’t just hanging around waiting for you to do stuff. The game itself was an excellent adaption of the book, but introduced enough other puzzles so that the book didn’t act as a walkthrough. The parser felt very advanced for its time and the ability to “talk” to other characters was a revelation. Be honest: who didn’t spend half their time telling Thorin to do very un-dwarf like things to Gandalf?

4. Loom (Amiga)

Loom Amiga

Underlining the heresy already committed in Part 1 by not having Monkey Island in its customary number 1 slot is the fact that I think Loom is actually LucasArts’s best adventure game.

Loom was different to most other adventure games. Rather than using the traditional point and click method of selecting actions and objects from an inventory, Loom’s interface was based around your ability to discover, learn and cast musical spells which could then be used to manipulate other objects and progress the game. Initial concerns that this might limit the range of puzzles soon disappear thanks to some brilliant game design and innovative puzzles. I revisted Loom recently and it’s just as good 25 years later.

3. Beneath a Steel Sky (Amiga)

BASS

I’ve played and loved all of Revolution Software’s output, but Beneath a Steel Sky is special. The Dave Gibbons graphics, the dystopian sci-fi setting, the lovable little robot Joey, the wry, sarcastic sense of humour and the clever puzzles all make for a great game. The only downside was that the Amiga version came on something like 15 floppy disks. Indeed, the constant disk-swapping was such a pain that I went out and bought a hard disk for my Amiga, just so I could play it – so this £20 (or whatever) title ended up costing me around £150! It was worth every penny, though (and, in fairness, the hard disk turned out to be one of my best Amiga purchases).

2. Toonstruck (PC)

toonstruck-cover

This is one of the few adventure games that has previously featured on this blog. Hugely overlooked and under-rated, it’s a madcap cartoon-style graphic adventure featuring a digitized Christopher Lloyd, a psychotic, balloon-obsessed clown and sheep-on-cow S&M. How can you not like it? OK, the first part (essentially a treasure hunt to find a variety of objects) is a lot more fun and part 2 feels rather rushed and anti-climactic, but this is a game that will make you laugh, scratch your head and frustrate in equal measure – all positive attributes for an adventure game, I feel!

And so, we reach the coveted Number One slot, which goes to…

 

1. Broken Sword (PC)

Broken Sword PC box

It’s testament to how good Revolution Software’s games are that they occupy two of the top three spots. All of the (to date) 5 entries in the Broken Sword series is a great game, but it’s the original that deserves top spot. From the cinematic opening to the globe-trotting exploits of heroes George and Nicole, the game hardly puts a foot wrong. The wry humour is the perfect counterpoint to the sometimes darker plot elements; the story is incredibly deep and well-researched (it’s essentially the Da Vinci Code long before Dan Brown put finger to word processor) and the for the most part, the puzzles are well-crafted.

If it wasn’t for THAT goat, it would be damn close to the perfect adventure…

Conclusion

So, there we are. My Top 10 adventures of all time. Congratulations to Revolution Software for securing the number one spot and dominating the Top 3.

What do the rest of you think? Agree? Disagree? Glaring omissions? Your Personal Top 10? You know what to do – stick your comments in the box below!

Special thanks to @Catflap for giving me the idea for this post.

C64 Games of the Year Part 2: 1987-1992

Introduction

Now the dust has settled after the controversy of Part 1, here’s the final part in my run down of top C64 games from 1982-1991.

Moving into the second part of the decade of the machine’s life, the number of quality releases declined significantly as budget titles started to come to dominate. To off-set that, though, the quality of the best games increased dramatically, as programmers really understood how to get the best out of the machine.

1987

1987 was one of the hardest years to pick the winning games. Airborne Ranger, Pirates! and Barbarian all narrowly missed out on places, as they were pipped to the post by the following.

Honourable mention

California Games: The pinnacle of Epyx’s Games series (discuss!). They took everything they had learned from Summer Games and Winter Games (impressive graphics, short events, easy-to-learn controls) and applied it to this collection of slightly more obscure sports. I’d never heard of it before I played this title, but I quickly became master of the hackey sack!

Kikstart II: I might have bemoaned the growth of budget games in the introduction, but there were some real gems that easily beat many full-price offerings. Shaun Southern’s KikStart II was one. Offering a computerised spin on the BBC TV series of (almost) the same name, it had two player split screen racing, loads of built-in courses and a course creator – all for just £2. What a bargain!

Runner up: The Last Ninja

From a gameplay perspective, System 3’s game might not have offered much new, but it felt like a game changer in all other regards. The graphics were stunning, the animation fluid and the music incredible. This was a game that really pushed the boundaries of what the C64 could handle. The sequel might arguably have been a better game, but it’s always the original that sticks in my mind.

Winner: Bubble Bobble

Bubble Bobble title

In any other year, The Last Ninja would have taken the crown but it was unfortunate to be released in the same year as Bubble Bobble. Software Creations managed to cram a virtually arcade perfect conversion into the C64. Whilst not as graphically impressive as the Last Ninja, it offered much more addictive game play and for me that will always win out over impressive presentation. Brilliantly designed and superbly executed, this would be a strong contender for my best C64 game EVER, never mind just 1987.

1988

Honourable mention:

Barbarian II: Palace Software’s hack and slash original narrowly missed out on a place in 1987, so it’s time to redress that. Whilst many people disagree, I’ve always had a soft spot for the sequel. The exploration-based game play added more variety, whilst the various monsters (which could dispatch the unwary Barbarian/Barbarianette(?!) in impressively gory fashion) made for a less repetitive game. I wouldn’t say the sequel is better than the original but, judged on its own merits, it’s as good.

The Shoot em Up Construction Kit (SEUCK): I’ve written in another post about how I always longed to program my own games, but suffered from a crippling lack of brains/talent/knowledge/time. Sensible Software’s sublime SEUCK gave me the tools to create my very own, commercial quality shoot em ups. Of course, it never happened, but that was my fault, not SEUCK’s, and I still had a lot of fun messing around with it. The 4 decent games written and supplied with SEUCK as part of the package showed what could be done in capable hands.

The downside was that, once released, it led to poor quality SEUCK-authored games flooding the market. Bad SEUCK games became as ubiquitous as budget titles.

Runner Up: Star Wars

The original arcade machine was released in 1983, so why the hell did we have to wait 5 years for this home conversion? Still, at least it was worth the wait: the game perfectly captured the feel of both the arcade game and the film and really made you feel like you were Luke Skywalker. OK, so the gameplay could slow down a little at times (the C64 was never the best at vector graphics) and the gameplay could become repetitive, but it was still a belter.

Winner: Armalyte

armalyte_(kixx) (1)

Continuing the trend for 1988, another shoot em up takes top spot. Armalyte was clearly inspired by R-Type, but it remained very much its own game. Visually and aurally impressive, challenging and utterly addictive, it was a brilliant example of how well the C64 did shoot em ups and remains one of my favourite examples of the genre to this day.

1989

This is where it starts to get tougher as developers and gamers began to drift towards the 16 bits and new games started to dry up. There will still some great games, though.

Honourable mention

Speedball: The sequel was the more rounded game, but the original was a great title in its own right. Many games had tried to crack the futuristic violent sports genre, but few had got it right. Speedball did, nailing the balance between violence and sport– taking a player out with a heavy tackle was just as satisfying as scoring a goal.

The Untouchables: Ocean were often criticised for applying the same formula to their film licenses, but when it worked as well as this, who cares? The Untouchables blended several different genres (platform game, chase game, Operation Wolf-style shooter) into a series of entertaining mini games. Although Batman the Movie was released the same year, this was the better game, as it relied less on flashy presentation and was more suited to the 8 bits.

Runner up: Project Firestart

One of the earliest examples I played of what would become known as Survival Horror. Project Firestart saw you the lone survivor of spaceship where something sinister had happened. All the crew were dead and you had to find out why and avoid the same fate. Oozing atmosphere, this was a cracking game which never quite got the accolades it deserved due to its relatively late, low profile release.

Winner: Turbo Outrun

Turbo Outrun

After the massive disappointment of US Gold’s Outrun conversion, Probe Software’s Turbo Outrun set the record straight. Taking part in an illegal road race across America, you had to finish the stages within tight time limits, whilst escaping from cops trying to do you for speeding. A blistering racing game with the exhilarating sense of speed that the original conversion lacked, combined with a superb soundtrack from Jeroen Tel. The cassette version a multi-load nightmare, but the disk version was fantastic.

1990

Another tough year. Whilst only a small number of games (8) made the shortlist, they were all quality releases. In the end, a somewhat eclectic mix of titles that made it through to the final 4.

Honourable mentions:

International 3D Tennis: Using wireframe graphics for a tennis game wasn’t the most obvious design decision, but once you got used to the slightly odd, sparse aesthetics, it worked surprisingly well. Sensible Software’s attempt to do for tennis what they’d already done for football wasn’t quite as successful, but they still served up a fun, challenging and addictive game that (like many games) really took off when played against a friend.

Sport of Kings:  A real leftfield choice, especially since I’ve never placed a bet on a horse in my life! Yet, this horse betting simulator from Mastertronic was surprisingly good fun (with the added bonus that you didn’t lose any real money!). As in real life, you had to look at the form, assess the track and decide whether you wanted to bet on an outright win or a place before deciding how much money you were prepared to risk. The algorithms behind the results were pretty simple by today’s standards, but myself and a friend wiled away many happy hours risking our virtual cash.

Runner up: Die Hard

A superb take on the film saw you roaming the corridors of Nakatomi Plaza trying to free the hostages, kill the bad guys and stay alive. It would have been so easy to turn this into a routine Contra-style shoot em up but the developers took a much more thoughtful approach, where stealth would get you far further than blasting. It was as tough as old boots – you only got one life (albeit measured by a health bar, rather than a single shot proving fatal), but (just like the film), you felt a real sense of achievement every time you got that little bit further.

Winner: Rainbow Islands

Rainbow Islands title

There could only be one winner for 1990. This Bubble Bobble sequel, programmed by Graftgold, was, like its predecessor, not arcade perfect, was pretty damn close. The bright colours, jaunty tune and cutesy enemies could have made for a vomit-inducing experience, but the excellent, well balanced gameplay was the perfect antidote.

1991

By the time 1991 rolled around, I was buying fewer and fewer games. I had my eye on upgrading to an Amiga, so all my spare cash was set aside for that. As such, there’s just one title makes my list for 1991, so by default it’s also the winner.

Winner: Speedball II

speedball_2

The original got an honourable mention back in 1989, but the sequel does even better. It took the first game and improved it: more polished, more fun, more challenging. The expanded teams, player rosters and competitions added to the challenge, whilst recapturing everything that was so good about the original.

1992

In this, the last year that I owned my C64, just two games make the shortlist and it was so hard to separate them that they both end up joint winners. A fitting way perhaps to end my ownership of a machine that produced so many great games.

Joint winners

Creatures 2

creatures_2

The only reason Creatures didn’t feature in 1990 was because I knew it would get a second chance later. Creatures 2 took the really good bits from the first game (particularly the torture screens) and added more whilst ironing out a few of the kinks that sometimes made the original frustrating. The supremely talented Rowland Brothers crafted a brilliant platform game with graphics to match any of the much-vaunted console platformers of the day.

First Samurai

first_samurai_thumb

Another great game from some of the talented team behind The Last Ninja (hence the pun-title). Sales might not have been as good as the Amiga counterpart, but that didn’t reduce the quality of this brilliant, challenging platform game that looked and sounded incredible on what was by now pretty ancient hardware.

So, there you go: a run-down of my top games for the entire period that I owned a C64. Part one (1982-1986) caused a few cries of “but what about…” (yes, Catflap I’m looking at you!), but that just serves to underline how many superb games were released.

So, now it’s over to you to again agree, disagree, suggest some of your own favourites or just reminisce over some of the titles I’ve listed.

C64 Games of the Year Part One: 1982-1986

Introduction

To make up for the lack of recent postings, this blog entry is a bit longer than normal. It was inspired by an article in Retro Gamer magazine which celebrated the 35th anniversary of the ZX Spectrum by picking the best game released for the machine in each of those 35 years.

Shamelessly stealing the idea, I decide to pick out the best Commodore 64 games for the period 1982-1992, the 10 years that I owned the machine. The post is split into two parts – one covering 1982-1986, the second 1987-1992.

The games selected are the “best” from my point of view. They aren’t not necessarily the “best” in terms of either critical acclaim or commercial success. Some will be titles you might expect to find in such a list; others are a little more left-field. Feel free to disagree with my choices in the comments below, but remember: these are my personal choices, so naturally reflect my own biases!

For each year, there will be a winner, a runner up and up to two “honorable mentions” games which I really, really liked but which didn’t quite make the final two.

So without more ado, let’s hop into our time travel machine and go all the way back to 1982

1982

1982 was something of a lean year for gaming releases, since it was pretty early in the machine’s career, but there were still a few of note.

Honorable mention:

Jupiter Lander – a decent (if ultimately limited and repetitive) version of the arcade game, released by Commodore

Runner up: Choplifter

A rather advanced title for its time which saw you piloting a helicopter to rescue people and taken them to safety, whilst avoiding enemy fire. The rescue element added a whole new level to what would otherwise have a been a run of the mill shooter.

Winner: Radar Rat Race

The first proper C64 game I owned. A close family friend bought me the cartridge version the same Christmas I got my machine, so it’s a game that brings back very happy memories. You took control of a rat trying to escape from other rats and cats whilst eating as much cheese as possible. It was a pretty decent game too, despite the annoying repetition of “Three Blind Mice”.

Rat Race Cover

1983

If 1982 was a bit of lean year, 1983 was brought a bumper crop of games. It was the year that led me to allow “honorable mentions” since there were so many great games from this year that limiting myself to 2 seemed impossible.

Honorable mentions:

Attack of the Mutant Camels: The very first game I bought myself, the first game to reviewed on this blog and the game that started a life-long love affair with the games of Jeff Minter. A quirky title for sure, but a great shoot ‘em up.

Siren City: At a time most games were still arcade clones, Siren City offered something a little different. You took on the role of a police officer patrolling the streets of the titular city and chasing down criminals. Not even the rather cumbersome controls could ruin this fun and innovative title.

Runner up: Forbidden Forest

Another highly innovative game. The chunky graphics, bombastic sound and music, gory deaths and incredible atmosphere made for a game that remained totally addictive no matter how many times you beat it. An inferior sequel followed.

Winner: Blue Max

This isometric flying/shooting game was essentially a Zaxxon clone, but for my money improved on the original. The perspective and controls took a little time to get used to, but the rewards for persevering were great. A challenging and fun game this was one of the few titles I’ve ever been any good at.

Blue_Max_Title

1984

Honorable Mentions:

High Noon: A simple, but effective single screen Western-based shooter from Ocean. Full of quirky humour (the dancing girls, the undertaker taking away the dead bodies) and a brilliant rendition of the High Noon theme tune. Another game I was actually pretty good at, it did become repetitive after a while, but rarely stopped being fun.

Chuckie Egg: This might be heresy, but as a platform game, I’d put Chuckie Egg ahead of Manic Miner because it was more playable and less frustrating. A game I continued to play for as long as I had my C64.

Runner Up: Ghostbusters

It might have been little more than a pretty simple set of mini games based around the film, but Ghostbusters captured the spirit of its celluliod  namesake. From the opening shout of “Ghostbusters, Mwa ha ha ha ha ha!” and the bouncy ball singalong theme tune to the final showdown with the Marshmallow Man, this was an all-too-rare example of a licence done well.

Winner: Bruce Lee

What can I say? Bruce Lee was an addictive and brilliantly playable platform/fighting game that just oozed quality. Full of variety and with a two player mode to boot, this is the game that stands out for me in another year that had some real quality titles.

Bruce Lee - cover

1985

1985 was a bumper year for sports titles, with all of my picks for this year coming from that category.

Honorable mentions:

Way of the Exploding Fist: When this karate game burst arrived on the scene, it was a revelation. The presentation was head and shoulders above many other games, and it was a great fighting game to boot. Only the arrival of International Karate+ two years later could take its crown as the machine’s best martial arts game.

Frank Bruno’s Boxing: A thinly-veiled rip-off of Punch-Out!! that was impressive, fun and frustrating all at once. The larger than life characters looked great on the 64 and it provided a tough challenge. OK, it became quite repetitive and sometimes felt unfair, but I can remember grimly playing it for hours on end, determined to take Frank to the very top (as in real life, I don’t think he ever made it, sadly)

Runner-up: Graham Gooch’s Test Cricket

I’ve never really been a fan of cricket in either real life or on a computer, but something about this game just captivated me. Although control was limited to either the bowler or batter, it was a pretty decent interpretation of the sport. Like the real thing, the more you practiced, the better you got; but the emphasis on arcade style fun over serious simulation made it fun for casual players.

Winner: Barry McGuigan’s World Championship Boxing

Barry’s already been given the full review treatment on RetroReactiv8, and this remains my favourite boxing game to this day. Successfully combining basic simulation and arcade elements it saw the player take control of training and the actual fight as you made your bid for the top.

cover

1986

Honorable mentions:

Killed Until Dead: The first of two slightly left-field choices, this was a pseudo graphic adventure set in the world of amateur sleuthing. Featuring a number of different tales, you had to identify the murderer by piecing together the clues picked up from talking to different characters. Featuring parodies of real life crime writers, this was an amusing, entertaining and quirky game, let down only by being a bit too easy.

Dandy: all-too-often dismissed as a Gauntlet clone (it actually pre-dates it), Dandy plays much better than the official conversion – it’s faster, less buggy and generally more fun. I’m not sure it ever got an official stand-alone release (I only ever saw it on compilations) which is a real shame as it’s a very overlooked title.

Runner up: Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future

Dan Dare was one of the games that changed my perception of what computer games could be. It wasn’t terribly innovative in terms of basic game play (standard find/collect/use objects game mechanics), but it’s presentation was outstanding. Mimicking the panel style presentation of a real comic book it was one of the few early games that really felt like “a playable cartoon.”

Winner: Leaderboard

Leaderboard successfully turned people (like myself) who hate golf in real life into avid computer golfers. The controls were so right that they are still pretty much still used today, whilst the game itself was challenging but fun. World Class Leaderboard might have been a more accomplished game overall, but it was the original game that was the real revelation.

Leaderboard title screen

Note: all the games release dates are taken from the Gamebase64 website, so don’t shout at me if you dispute them!

Joystick Roundup

Readers of old magazines such as Zzap!64 or Amiga Power will recall that every once in a while (usually when it was a quiet month for new releases) they ran features on the best joysticks. To keep up this tradition, I’ve decided to do my very own Top 5. I know. Whoo-hoo, right?

Anyway, to keep the subject manageable, I’ve imposed a couple of rules on myself:

  1. Joysticks only – none of these nasty, new-fangled controller things, thank you very much.
  2. I have to have owned the joysticks in question, not just used them at a friend’s house.

Given these restrictions my choices are effectively narrowed down to Commodore 64 and Amiga joysticks – the systems I owned when I was younger.

So here we go: counting down from 5 to 1, my top 5 joysticks.

5. Quickshot II

Joysticks - Quickshot II

I’ll be the first to admit that this was not the best joystick in the world. Whilst it was a perfectly adequate controller, it could be a little fragile. The micro-switches in particular had a tendency to break (making it a complete no-no for games like Daley Thompson’s Decathlon) and after very heavy use, the top fire button had a tendency to become unresponsive. It wasn’t the cheapest either, so when competitors became available, I quickly jumped ship and kept this as a reserve joystick (aka the crappy one you gave to friends for 2 players games).

It makes the top 5 for purely sentimental reasons – it was my first joystick. I can vividly remember pretending I was a fighter pilot even as I was waiting for my very first C64 game to load and it brings back a lot of fond memories. For that reason, it just scrapes into the Top 5.

4. The Little Brown Joystick Whose Name I Can’t Remember.

Joysticks - The Small Brown One

Mmmm. This blog post is going well isn’t it? Only two entries in and already I’ve included a stick I’ve admitted wasn’t that great and now one I can’t even remember the name of.

This was a joystick that my mate bought me for my birthday from his mum’s catalogue. All I can remember is that it was quite small with s square, brown based. The stick itself was black and fairly small (around the same size as the old Atari joystick but much thinner). It looked a bit like the one in the picture, but that’s not exactly right.

Even though my memory is failing me as to its name, it fully deserves its place in this Top 5 because it was a cracking little joystick. The square base meant it fitted firmly in the palm of your hand, whilst the stick itself was incredibly responsive. Although there was a significant amount of travel (the old technical term Zzap! used to use, and which I’m sticking with), it responded to your movements very quickly. The big travel distance actually made it ideal for games like Decathlon or Summer Games as you could waggle furiously without too much risk of destroying it. It also had the advantage of being very cheap (which I suspect is the attraction it held for my mate when he bought it for me).

If anyone knows which stick I’m talking about, despite my very vague description, do let me know.

3. The Bug

Joysticks - Bug

I didn’t come across this one until I owned a C64 for a second time, but it quickly established itself as a favourite.

The bug was certainly an odd looking joystick. It was very small, had strange bulges everywhere (making it look like a bit like a bug’s face, hence the name), a tiny stick (stop it, madam) and an oddly-placed fire button.

Despite these seeming disadvantages, the Bug was a brilliant joystick. Like The Little Brown Joystick Whose Name I Can’t Remember, its small size meant that it was easy and comfortable to hold for prolonged gaming periods. The almost elliptical shape meant that it fitted in the palm even better than The Little Brown Joystick Whose Name I Can’t Remember (after all, who has square palms?) and I found it perfect for shoot-em-ups in particular.

I may have discovered The Bug late, but I quickly became a fan.

2. Powerplay Cruiser

Joysticks - Cruiser black

This was a somewhat divisive joystick, but I was firmly in the “love it” camp. With its rounded base and big round knob at the top of the stick (I said STOP IT, MADAM), it wasn’t much to look at, but it worked well. The stick felt tight and responsive and there was minimal travel, making it ideal for games needing quick reactions. Unlike many joysticks, it came in a choice of colours (black remained my favourite – hey I was a teenager – but gaudier options were available) and it was cheap. Extended use did result in a tendency for the case to crack, but this was just your computer’s way of telling you it was time to treat it to a new joystick.

The main downside was the industrial strength suckers that sat on the base. During lengthier periods, it could become uncomfortable to hold, meaning you had to put it down onto a hard surface to continue playing. Once you did, the suckers stuck to it like a limpet fighting the tide and your only hope of ever removing it was to call Arnold Schwarzenegger and ask him to pop round to help you out. Arnie was such a frequent visitor to our house, he had his own mug and everything*

AND THE WINNER IS…

 

1. ZipStick

Joysticks - Zipstick

With its black plastic futuristic looking casing (look – it was the 1980s, EVERYTHING looked futuristic) and square yellow buttons, the ZipStick was certainly a joystick that screamed “look at me”. Thankfully, it backed up these good looks in the game playing arena, proving robust, responsive and comfortable. In fact, it was so durable, I can’t remember ever busting a ZipStick

So the Mighty ZipStick is officially crowned as RetroReactiv8’s Joystick of Champions.

The Conclusion Bit

Before you all go away and do something far more important, I just want to give an honourable mention to the old Atari VCS joystick. This didn’t make it into the final cut because a) I never owned an Atari (although I did play one extensively at my friend’s house) and b) it was a horrible joystick.

Anyone who has ever used one will remember how stiff (Madam, I am going to have to ask you to leave) and unresponsive it could be. After only a few games, your hands would be aching so much that you were convinced they would drop off, yet you still kept playing, trying to wrestle this unwieldy thing to move a bunch of pixels in the right direction.

It gets an honourable mention for the same reason the QuickShot II made the cut. This was the very first joystick I ever used in my whole life and so was my gateway to gaming. It might have been a horrible piece of kit, long surpassed in terms of design, comfort, user-friendliness and just about everything else, but it was iconic and  I still get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I see one.

Just so long as you don’t actually make me use it…

 

* May not actually have happened