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.

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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

KikStart II (Commodore 64 Review)

kik-start_2_01

Retro gamers of a certain age are likely to recall with some fondness Kick Start (or Junior Kick Start for younger competitors) which was often a staple of the TV schedules during the long summer holidays. The programme was essentially an obstacle course for motorbikes, with the rider who completed the course in the fastest time declared the winner. It also had a jaunty little theme tune which you’re probably now singing even as you read this.

Shaun Southern’s KikStart series, on the other hand was completely different. The game was essentially an obstacle course for motorbikes, with the person who completed the course in the fastest time declared the winner. It also had a jaunty little theme tune which you’re probably now singing even as you read this.

Oh, who am I trying to kid? The KikStart games were a pretty blatant rip-off of the TV series. Barring a copyright-infringement dodging dropped c and missing space, it’s pretty clear where Shaun Southern took his inspiration from. But then again, when the game is as good as this, who cares?

The original KikStart was decent enough, but it’s sequel was simply superb. Look past the fairly bland graphics and pretty basic sound and you found a game that was perfectly designed, incredibly addictive and immense fun to play – especially if you roped in a friend and tried the game’s two-player mode.

In one sense, the game was relatively simply – you drove your motorbike along the screen from left to right, across the various obstacles to the finish line. Obstacles included jumps, balance beams and logs which you needed to bunny hop across. The whole thing was done against the clock, racing against either a computer controlled or human competitor the winner the one who reached the winning post in the fastest time.

That all sounds pretty simple right? Just rev the throttle up to maximum and hurtle your way along the course as fast as possible, surely? Wrong. And don’t call me Shirley. The beauty (and depth) of the game came from the fact that the various obstacles were beautifully implemented, making the game a perfect balance between speed and patience, risk and reward. Take some obstacles too quickly and you would fall off your bike; take some too slowly and… you guessed it, you’d fall off your bike. Falling off attracted a time penalty, meaning your chances of winning were reduced. You needed to judge exactly how fast you could safely take each obstacle (and some of the obstacles could be very precise), keep an eye on how your opponent was doing and (since obstacles often came thick and fast) be aware of what was coming up next so that you could increase/reduce your speed accordingly.

A friend and I played this endlessly over the Summer of ‘87. We never got bored of it and, in the end, got really good at it, knowing exactly what speed to take the various obstacles for that maximum balance between speed and safety. We both got so good that we reached the stage where the computer opponent was totally unable to beat us. Yet still the competitive element of trying to beat each other kept us coming back. Once we’d got so good at that that we would literally finish courses within a tenth of second of each other, there was always the challenge of trying to beat the best time recorded on each course (and, of course, we diligently recorded all the best times in a little book, together with who had achieved them). When it came to KikStart II, the word “addictive” found a new definition in that summer of ’87.

Even when you mastered the 24 in-built courses, the game still had one final trick up its sleeve in the form of a course designer which allowed you to create and save your own courses. This was brilliantly simple to use, although (in my experience) merely highlighted how difficult it actually was to design a course which was challenging, yet playable and fun – yet more evidence of how well-designed the supplied courses were.

And the best thing of all? KikStart II was released on the Mastertronic label and cost a paltry £1.99. For an original game (albeit a sequel), this was an absolute steal. How the game wasn’t awarded a Zzap! Sizzler is beyond me (it scored 86% in the September 1987 issue). However, I’m sure that Shaun Southern will be more than consoled by the fact that, almost 30 years after its release, it made its way into RetroReactiv8’s coveted (by me at least!) Top Ten Commodore 64 games!

My personal franchise failures

For those of you that don’t read it, the latest edition of Retro Gamer magazine here in the UK had a massive, 16-page feature celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Final Fantasy series.

Whilst the article was as well-researched and written as most of Retro Gamer’s articles, this one really held little interest for me, as I’ve never played a Final Fantasy game – I don’t enjoy RPGs and so the series has never appealed to me.

The article did get me thinking, though, about how many successful, “classic” retro gaming series I’ve not actually played, and there are some pretty big names in there. I’ve already confessed to barely playing any Mario games and the same is true for Sonic. Although I have played both the original and its sequel via emulation, the only Sonic game I’ve played on original hardware is Sonic Colours on the DS.

Similarly, The Otaku Judge recently posted an (as always) excellent review of the new Castlevania TV series, and I had to confess that, once again, I’d never actually played a Castlevania title.

When I stopped to think about it, the list grew longer: I’ve never played an F-Zero game or a Zelda title; Altered Beast and Eternal Champions mostly passed me by. I’ve played the odd bit of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, but not a massive amount; MegaMan and BomberMan mostly remain strangers to me and so on. How on earth can I call myself a retro gamer when I have little or no experience of all these classic franchises?

Then it dawned on me how much your choice (or possibly more accurately, your parents’ choice!) of console or computer can impact on what you perceive as “retro games”. Of course, all the games mentioned above are retro games and fondly remembered by fans, but they are not titles that would spring to my mind if someone asked me to name some great old titles. Personally (and it’s clear if you look back at this blog’s content) my definition of a “retro game” tends to focus on Commodore 64 and Amiga titles, because these were the computers I had growing up.

Sure, with the advent of emulation, there’s really no excuse for not having played any of these games, but the truth is I often find emulation to be a bit unreliable, fiddly to get up and running properly and, frankly, often not worth the effort it takes. Whilst I’m not a purist, I do generally prefer playing on the original hardware because (providing you have the funds!) since it tends to produce a more reliable experience. And because (sadly), I have pretty limited funds, I tend to stick to collecting platforms and games that I already know, rather than branching out into new and (for me) untried areas.

So come on, time to ‘fess up. I’ve admitted to my shameful failings so now it’s your turn. What classic retro franchises have you never (or hardly ever) played?

Bruce Lee (Commodore 64) review

 

Blimey. It’s been a while since I added anything to this blog, hasn’t it? Don’t worry, RetroReactiv8 is still alive and kicking – it’s just that every time I sit down to try and write something normal life gets in the way…

Anyway, let’s get things back on track with a review of Bruce Lee on the Commodore 64.

Bruce Lee - cover

This early DataSoft game narrowly missed out on a place in my Top 10 Commodore 64 games a while back, and I felt a bit guilty about it. So now it’s time to redress the balance by giving it the full review treatment.

Bruce Lee is an early (and very successful) example of using a well-known name to sell a game. Happily, (unlike many similar examples), it’s a great game with a recognisable name attached, rather than a recognisable name linked to a rubbish game.

At heart, Bruce Lee is a platform game with some fighting elements thrown in. Bruce must negotiate his way across a series of screens, collecting the lanterns that are scattered around each level and avoiding the various hazards that will kill him if he comes into contact with them. Bruce is pursued by a black-clad Ninja and a green (bad sushi?) Sumo wrestler (which, for some reason, myself and a friend christened Desmond Littlefellow and (you guessed it) Desmond Bigfellow. They did actually both have proper names, but this is what we always called them, so it’s how I’ll be referring to them throughout this review).

The two Desmonds will pursue Bruce across the level and attempt to beat him up. Although you can outrun them (getting to the exit on a particular screen resets their starting position for the next level), you might prefer to teach them a lesson and fight them, since Bruce is pretty handy with his fists (and his feet), and more than capable of looking after himself.

Although both can be equally fatal to Bruce, Desmond and Desmond have distinctive fighting styles, making them challenging in different ways. Desmond Littlefellow is quick and agile, with a big stick that increases his range. However, his attacks are weaker and do a little less damage. Desmond Bigfellow is slower and heavier, but Bruce can withstand fewer hits before dying.

Like much else in the game, once you get the hang of the fighting, it’s pretty easy to make sure you rarely die at the Desmonds’ hands, but killing them never becomes dull. Indeed, the game should be applauded for the imaginative ways you can kill your opponents and there’s a sick sense of satisfaction to be derived from standing deliberately just out of range and luring them into a trap (such as an exploding firework) to dispatch them in new and interesting ways!

The platform elements are really well-designed. New hazards are gradually introduced (such as fireworks that explode a second after you have run over them or electrified areas where runs have to be timed right to get past). This gives a real sense of progress and achievement. Although there’s a reasonable level of precision needed, the game doesn’t feature the pixel-perfect jumping that made games like Manic Miner so hard. As such, I’ve always found it a lot more fun to play. With practice, you really start to make progress and levels become fun (leaving you free to do the above-mentioned taunting and luring). When you’ve finished the game, it’s an ideal candidate for a speed run, if that’s your thing, and the whole thing has a tremendous amount of replay value.

Bruce Lee - start

The graphics do an excellent job of creating and maintaining an appropriate and convincing setting and doing homage to a martial arts icon. Bruce Lee is instantly recognisable and fluidly animated. He moves with a real sense of purpose and style and is fast and agile, thus capturing the character extremely well. The two Desmonds are also well-animated, whilst the varied (and impressively big for its day) scenery definitely creates an oriental atmosphere.

Audio is similarly limited, but effective. The only music of note is on the game’s title screen, but it’s a brilliant piece that again adds to the oriental setting. The lack of in-game music doesn’t prove to be an issue at all, because whilst the sound effects are relatively sparse, they really add to the game. In fact, I genuinely think constant in-game music would have had a detrimental impact on the overall atmosphere and it’s better off without.

It’s interesting to play Bruce Lee again after first experiencing it as a child. I often bemoan my lack of gaming prowess, particularly as I get older and my reflexes get even worse. However, back in the 80s I really can’t remember ever beating Bruce Lee – something which, frankly, I’m astounded at now. Because whilst the game offers some challenge, once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s actually pretty easy to beat. I can now beat it every single time I play and on a couple of occasions have even got close to making it all the way through without losing a life. That is unheard of for me, so how I failed to beat it as a kid is beyond me.

Anyhow, despite missing out on a place in my C64 Top 10 games, justice has finally been done for Bruce Lee in the form of a complete review. The man was a martial arts legend and a Commodore 64 gaming legend. Not bad for someone who had been dead for over 10 years by the time this game was released.

Gaming Disasters: NATO Commander (C64)

NATO Commander box

When I was growing up, I was pretty lucky that I didn’t suffer too many gaming disasters. Money was tight and games were expensive, so using Zzap!64 as my bible, I carefully researched my gaming purchases to make sure I didn’t buy a dud. Occasionally, though, one slipped through the net: Outrun was one (bought based on my love of the arcade game, before I saw the Zzap! review), NATO Commander was another.

NATO Commander was an early computerised wargame. Playing as either the Warsaw Pact/Eastern Bloc countries or the Western European NATO allies, you had to marshal your forces, deploying them to ensure victory for your side. Each side had different types and numbers of forces, whilst other factors (such as terrain or the strength of the opposing army) influenced their effectiveness.

From the moment I opened up the box and loaded the cassette, I hated it. The gameplay and pace were (relatively speaking) slow and each move had to be carefully considered, weighing up the likely implications for your forces, rather than just charging in there, all guns blazing. After just a couple of games (in which whatever side I was controlling lost badly), it was consigned to the shelf, never to be retrieved until the day I sold my C64.

In fairness, NATO Commander wasn’t a bad game in its own right (it typically scored 3/5 or 7/10 in the reviews of the time). It’s just that it was the wrong game for me. I’m not the most patient person and text/graphic adventures aside, I prefer faster paced games, with shoot ‘em ups and driving games my favourite genres. NATO Commander was totally different to anything else I owned or played and the more considered style of gameplay was not for me.

To make matters worse, there were a couple of other things that really rubbed my nose in it. First of all (for no obvious reason), NATO Commander was more expensive than other games of the time (from memory, the standard price for a game at that point was £8.95, NATO Commander retailed at £10.95). Secondly, my C64 gaming setup involved a really crappy, ancient black and white TV (it was a rare treat when I was allowed to bring it into the lounge and put it on the big colour TV!). This had very dodgy brightness and contrast controls which made distinguishing between the different units (or even the different sides) almost impossible, rendering an already frustrating game (in my eyes) even more inaccessible.

NATO Commander screen

The worst thing of all, though, is that I only have my own stupidity to blame. Let me explain: I was never one of the cool kids at school and always struggled to make friends. I had a reasonable number of acquaintances (mostly fellow C64 owners with whom I used to swap games), but few people I would call real friends. One day, some of the cool kids were talking about NATO Commander and how they wanted to play it. Desperate to ingratiate myself (and because I already had a reputation of being able to acquire games), I blurted out “Oh, I’ve got that”, effectively committing myself to letting them have it.

I asked around all my contacts, but no-one had it, leaving me with two choices. I could either ‘fess up and admit I didn’t have the game (thus losing face and risking being ostracized even further) or I could go out and buy a copy.  And, like an idiot, guess which one I did. To make matters worse, in return for lending them the game, I got a copy of the rubbish Danger Mouse, so I couldn’t even console myself with the fact that I’d got a good game from the transaction.

To this day NATO Commander remains the biggest single mistake in my long gaming career, and sat on my shelf for years as a shameful reminder of my stupidity. Even now as a forty-something adult, I still feel a sense of shame that I was manipulated so easily and wasted so much of my hard-earned pocket money on something I never wanted.

I learned my lesson. From that point on, I never bought another game unless a) I wanted it and b) Zzap!64 (and to a lesser extent Commodore User) said it was worth buying. I also learned that I was never going to be in with the cool kids and, if that’s how they treated people, realised that I didn’t actually want to be part of their group anyway. Valuable life lessons indeed!