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?

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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

 

 

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.

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.

 

Top Ten Tunes in Games – Part 2

After last time’s sequence of audio delights, it’s time for Part 2 of my Top 10 Tunes in computer games. If you want to remind yourself of the rules for selection, then take a look back at Part 1. Otherwise, let’s just get straight on with it.

6. The Last Ninja (Commodore 64)

[Full RetroReactiv8 review here]

The Last Ninja game was a revolution in itself, graphically light years ahead of anything else available at the time, and a good game to boot. The music certainly didn’t let the side down either. Each level had its own music, as did the inter-level loading screens. That’s a lot of tunes – all the more impressive when you consider there wasn’t a bad one amongst them. However, the one that always comes to my mind when I think of this game is the opening level – the Wastelands. Well-paced, perfectly suited to the game and exciting, it underlined what a truly special game The Last Ninja was.

7. Loco (Commodore 64)

Tony Crowther’s train-based game featured a cracking tune from Ben Daglish that made the game almost worth buying just for the music. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized this wasn’t an original composition, but was taken from a Jean-Michelle Jarre album. Indeed, when I heard it performed by him, I wondered why he was playing the Loco tune! Either way, it’s a great tune and this was a great adaptation.

8. Parallax (Commodore 64)

Like many of his contemporaries, Martin Galway produced some amazing sounds on the Commodore 64 and one of his best was the title music for Sensible Software’s first proper title. It’s incredibly atmospheric: the ominous start sets the tone and the reverse arpeggios build on it, with layer upon layer slowly being added to create a complex, overlapping tune. This was a stunning achievement, even with the C64’s renowned SID chip.

9. Rainbow Islands (Amiga)

[Full RetroReactiv8 review here]

Heavily inspired by “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, Steve Turner’s chirpy, jolly tune perfectly suited the cutesy look and feel of Bub and Bob’s second game. The only downside it was pretty short and looped endlessly, so some people found it slightly annoying during longer gaming sessions. Not me; I loved it!

10. Thing on a Spring (Commodore 64)

As Catflap rightly pointed out in his comment on Part 1, it would have been a crime if a Rob Hubbard tune hadn’t featured, but I bet I had you worried for a minute, didn’t I? Out of all his great compositions, Thing on a Spring is the one I’ve gone for. Whilst I never really got into the game itself, it was always worth loading up just to listen to that jolly, bouncy tune which never got old. Of course these days, thanks to the joys of YouTube, you don’t have to wait 20 minutes for the game to load and can listen to it pretty much any time!

The Also-Rans

As I pointed out in the introduction to Part 1, whittling this list down to just 10 entries was an incredibly difficult task – I could easily have done a top 50 or even a Top 100. Eventually, what guided me to my final selection was trying to include a range of composers, rather than having too many compositions by a single person. This meant that some great music didn’t quite make the final cut for a variety of reasons, including:

Commando – another Rob Hubbard classic. It was really tough to leave this one out, as I love it and it’s probably the one I immediately think of when someone mentions Rob Hubbard’s name. At the end of the day, though, Thing on a Spring got the nod because it’s just so goddamn jolly!

Head Over Heels (Commodore 64) – A great piece of music that was mainly disqualified on the grounds that it wasn’t an original piece, with Peter Clarke ripping off Mozart for the main tune. Since I’d already included Loco and wanted to focus more on original music in this feature, Head over Heels had to go.

Trap Door (Commodore 64) – I’ve already mentioned the great music in my full review of this game. It fell victim to the chop mainly because it’s pretty short and most of the game didn’t have much music. Still a great adaptation of the theme tune, though.

Toonstruck (PC). This point and click adventure was filled with great tunes, and few were better than the opening title screen. It mainly lost its place due to my decision to exclude CD-based tunes and only include those from the 8 and 16 bit eras. Unlucky, Flux Wildly!

Top Ten Tunes in games – Part 1

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!)

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.