Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Amazing Spiderman (C64, 1990)

Back in the day there were two major C64 magazines, Commodore Format and Zzap64. It would just so happen that every once in a while they would give conflicting reviews about a game. Take The Amazing Spiderman for example. Commodore Format gave it a positive 79%, while Zzap gave it the thumbs-down with a 42%. Who got it right? I'd say Commodore Format this time since Spiderman is neat little game.

Unsurprisingly and without delving
too much in the plot, you take the role of Spiderman as he's trying to rescue Mary Jane, who has been kidnapped by Mysterio, in some sort of film studios. And one has to note that upon starting the game initial impressions aren't so favourable. Spidey moves at a fairly slow pace, while the control method can be a bit laborious - if not downright frustrating. Persevere though and a playable arcade-adventure reveals itself.

The Amazing Spiderman is a flick-screen affair and the emphasis is set on switches. Each screen features quite a lot of them, and these in turn activate secret passages, reveal hidden objects, alter the movement of the enemies etc. Screens range from the simplistic to the elaborate and requiring a lot of thought. Enemies can be temporarily stunned using your webshots, while Spidey can cling to the walls or even sling around with his web. And boy is his movement smooth, just look at that animation. Surely one of the best on the C64 along with Myth and Impossible Mission - but of course slow.

You really have to admire at the game's size, it's humongous. It's divided in various sections, which in turn are divided by the so called "take screens" (where you can restore your energy). The atmosphere is also rather special, occasionally giving the impression of a desolate and deranged funpark. Sound-wise the game isn't so hot, but you can always play some nice music in your Sidplay to make up for it.

As with many retro games, the real problem is the lack of a save option. Play this on an emulator and you won't face any such problems, but purists that would like to try this on a real 64 will be disappointed. Starting from scratch generally sucks, especially when you've played through half of the game. But hey, that's how it was back then. So try and you never know, it might just take your fancy.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Commodore Format 18 (March 1992)

Well, once upon a time a nice chap named Peter James Holl set up a website dedicated to Commodore Format, one of the two great C64 magazines (the other being Zzap64). Sadly, and even though he was doing a great job, the last time he updated it was in 2004. The site is still online and it has scans of over 25 issues, so why not give it a visit. In the meantime, I decided to fill some of the gaps, so here's issue number 18 from March 1992.

The issue has reviews of Indy Heat, Winter Camp, Demon Blues, Final Fight, Robocop 3 and others. Also previews of Beavers (which was never released eventually), Chuck Rock and Winter Super Sports '92. Finally there's a nice feature on RPGs. The scans are contained in a zip file, so you'll need either WinZip or WinRar to extract them. But hey, I guess everybody has those, right?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Forbidden Forest (C64, 1983)

It's quite interesting taking this trip down memory lane. Forbidden Forest originates from 1983 and it's definitely one to investigate. The reason is simple. I am of the opinion that apart from gameplay, what makes a videogame great is the atmosphere. If the game has such an atmosphere that can enchant you into believing you're briefly entering another (magical) world, an atmosphere that can draw you in, then this makes for all the difference. This is what separates good games from the truly great ones.

For example you can have a shoot-em-up which can be technically great and with pretty good gameplay, like SWIV on the Commodore 64. It will never be as good as Blood Money because Blood Money has that afore-mentioned feeling of immersion, with the levels being impeccably designed to give you this magical impression and a moody soundtrack to enhance it.

So it is with Forbidden Forest, which is actually one of the first games that can be labeled "cinematic". The programmer, Paul Norman, enveloped the simple arcade gameplay in a fantastic moody environment. The plot doesn't really matter. You control a guy who's trapped in a forest seized by ghouls and demons, and to defend yourself you have an arrow. What matters is the surroundings. As time passes, daylight slowly turns to dusk and dusk turns to night. Stars come out in the sky in the animated backgrounds (that feature some parallax scrolling) and colours change from brown to grey, to purple, to pitch black.

Also we get some really gory moments when the giant spiders, skeletons, dragons etc get you. Admittedly, in these days of advanced 3D gaming watching this blocky gore is quite funny, but back in the day it was the real deal.

The last stage is the best, where you try to defeat the ultimate demon, Morgor, who only becomes visible when lightning strikes, making for a chilly and almost subliminal effect. Couple that with the spooky sounds and great soundtrack, and you 've got one of the early masterpieces. Today's players will maybe laugh at it but the older (and wiser?) will recall with fondness and a fuzzy nostalgic feeling.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Blackwyche (C64, 1985)

Ultimate (now Rare) was one of the legendary software companies in the 80's, especially on the ZX Spectrum where they published a good deal of classic arcade-adventures (the 3D isometric kind). Interestingly enough they never achieved the same kind of success on the Commodore 64, where nevertheless they released a series of semi-classic aardvarks in the form of "the Arthur Pendragon saga" (including the Staff of Karnath, Entombed, Blackwyche and Dragonskulle).

The C64 was notoriously difficult in handling 3D isometric graphics, so Ultimate used a slightly different approach. It's still 3D but not quite. It's also more colourful than the Spectrum (thankfully).

Like I mentioned Blackwyche is the third in a series of arcade adventures, and the plot epigrammatically is that you're set on a haunted pirate ship trying to free the captain's damned soul. The ship consists of five decks and there's approximately 5 rooms and 2 great halls in each of them. Basically in order to free the captain's soul you must find 4 pieces of a map. Some can be easily found, while others require some puzzling.

Which brings me to the first fault of the game. No sooner you start the game on the first deck than you're attacked by demons. Luckily there's a sword in one of the nearby rooms, but the attack is relentless. It's also quite terribly made. Think of the skeleton attacks in Forbidden Forest but done in such a way so that you don't have much chance of defending yourself. And for some bizarre reason, when you're going from left to right it works better than when you're going from right to left.

Boo, there goes half of your energy every time you wander around then (which is all the time). There's a bell in a room in the first deck which replenishes your energy, so be prepared for some heavy back and forth and back again wandering. Considering the rooms are stupidly far from each other this ain't good.

Also, for an arcade-adventure the surroundings are uniformly similar which makes exploring a bit tedious. But let's check the puzzles. They aren't too good. Here's an example: there's a black flag in a room on the first deck. Then in one of the other decks you find a skull and crossbones. Woosh, you go back to the black flag, and you get a pirate flag which then subsides to reveal a hidden item. And that's a good puzzle actually.

Every so often hidden items can be found in awkward places which you discover by plain luck. You must crack some wall with your sword for example. Yeah, what are you supposed to do, experiment by cracking the walls in all the rooms? Yes actually. Not to mention the hidden traps that are here and there. Drawing a map is well advised so that you know the wheres and hows.

The controls are plain awful. Changing direction while facing a demon is a laborious task, as is switching from jumping to using the sword by pressing the spacebar. So is moving around in the semi-3D rooms because there's no real diagonal movement. Instead you must go left/right and up/down. But considering enemies usually move in one axis, you're severely handicapped. So to conclude, a lot of people seem to love this game, but I think it's a classic case of seeing it through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. It's a lousy arcade adventure and not very playable at all.


Thursday, September 6, 2007

Sonic The Hedgehog 3 (Mega-Drive, 1993)

The way I see it this third installment of Sonic's 2D platform adventures is the best up to this day; as well as one of the best games ever made. While still not any radical departure, Sega refined the concept to such a degree that it makes for an amazing gaming experience.

And while the graphics are some of the best in the series yet, it is the level layouts that make the difference. They have really turned into roller coaster rides. If previously Sonic was a platform game with serious speed excursions, now it is a full blown rocket ride. Not that this detracts from the skills needed to complete a course (as it did in Sonic Advance 2). It just offers more intuitive (and enjoyable) gameplay mechanics. The courses are also more complex, with often more than one way of finishing them, and with even more tricks than ever before. For example in the Marble-Zone Dr.Robotnik pops-up with a drill machine that changes the level layout. Or in the Carnival-Zone Miles the Echidna causes a blackout and it's up to you to save the day.

Furthermore the sense of atmosphere has increased a hundredfold. The levels now start and end in a cinematic way, seamlessly blending with each other. Also we get some really classic worlds. The Icecap-Zone in particular is pure gaming heaven thanks not only to the super-fast gameplay but also to the surroundings, with brilliant parallax animated backgrounds of crystal stalactites shining etc. Couple that with some really groovy music and you got a slice of gaming genius.

If in the future there ever is a class
in universities about videogames (and there should be), this game will most certainly be featured under the tag "best cases of 2D platforming".


Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (Mega-Drive, 1992)

Sega didn't waste time releasing a sequel and rightly so. Such was the success of the first game that it boosted the Mega-Drive's profile significantly. And even though it is Sonic 1 which can be considered the real gem, this second offering adds enough improvements to justify classical status. Let's check them out.

First of all the graphics are much improved, more colourful, with many more layers of parallax etc. It really is a case of bigger/better. Also this time Sonic spins, gathering momentum and then rushing off at insane speeds. This gives the game a roller coaster-like feel and of course adds to the excitement.Then a new character has been introduced, Tails the fox, which can be controlled by another player. So there's simultaneous 2-player action. And finally there's two zones in each world instead of three. Thus we get many more worlds, including a few classic ones (the Hilltop zone for example).

So in the end what we have here is not any radical departure (far from it), but rather a refinement. Sega were really on a roll with the Sonic titles on the Mega Drive (as opposed to, say, on the Gameboy Advance). Yup, I can recommend this one.


Sonic The Hedgehog (Mega-Drive, 1991)

It was 1991 when Sonic The Hedgehog was released (duh). Prior to that Sega lacked a mascot (whereas Nintendo had Mario) and arguably it was bound to stay behind Nintendo in the console wars (Mega Drive's direct competitor was the SNES). Sonic changed all that. But more importantly it changed platform games in general.

Platform games, eh? Let's take a brief look at how this particular genre evolved. In the earlier jump 'n' runs, like Jet Set Willy and Monty On The Run, apart from avoiding enemies and the like, the emphasis was on searching and solving the odd puzzle. They were mostly arcade-adventures truth be told. The "pure" jump 'n' run came a bit later, highlighted by Mario's adventures on the NES. Sega took the concept and revitalized it with Sonic.

How then? Well, with speed for starters. A lot of people think that Sonic is a game of speed, but the truth is that Sonic enchants you with speed so that you make mistakes. It feels great going really fast as you pave your way through the levels, but then you won't see the spike coming out of the ground just like that. So it's up to you finding the balance between the slow and the fast bits. Gameplay wise (and apart from the speed), Sonic uses an arsenal of platforming tricks (springs, elevators, tunnels, underwater parts, slides etc etc), which up to this day set the blueprint for all Sonic 2D games (or 2D platformers in general). That says something about how good this game is, no?

OK then, the graphics have lost some of their bite. But the game still comes up with some of the most distinctive level worlds Sonic has ever been in (my personal favourite is the Star Light Zone). And the thing with retro-gaming is that you can fill the gaps the graphics may have with your own imagination.

So to sum up, Sonic is a great game which all platforming fans should try in these great days of emulation heaven. My favourite Mega Drive emulator is Gens, which is terribly easy to set-up and use. So, er, try if you haven't. -)


Monday, September 3, 2007

Welcoming message and all that..

Hello guys and welcome to my blog. Here I'm going to keep track of my retro-gaming exploits, primarily on the Commodore 64 home-computer (viva the 80's), and the Sega Mega Drive and Nintendo 64 consoles. So if retro videogaming is your thing, why not come back and check out as I revisit some old favourites (or not so favourites). As Mario said in Super Mario 64, "here we go"..