Saturday, 30 March 2013


Hello gang!

Today, I bring you news.  You may have already heard this news if you follow me in other places, but I should make it official here, for the benefit of anyone that doesn't, or that stumbles in here.

I am pleased to announce the launch of

I feel like this is a pretty big step forward in the life of the book.  It should also be more fun, as it means I can add all different kinds of sections if I feel the need.  A blog is somewhat more restrictive in that regard.

I'm still learning what the host and its tools are capable of, so don't be surprised to see things appearing and disappearing, styles and fonts changing and so on... at least in the short term.  It'll all settle down soon enough though, I'm sure.

You'll probably notice that there are two blogs at the top of the page.  One tool available to me allowed the importing of blogs, so I've imported the They Were Our Gods blog and also my original blog, A Gamer Forever Voyaging.  That should give you plenty to read while I'm working on new stuff.

There are also some other features... a news section, an "extras" section where I will host things like my calendar... and probably more interesting to you, an "excerpts" section.  Here, you can find quotes and extracts from the book, so you can get a flavour of what I'm doing.  There aren't many there now, which is through choice.  I will add more as time goes by though, to keep it fresh and interesting.  There will be more sections appearing too, and you can make suggestions if you want, I'm open.

In time, all my updates will take place on the new site.  I'll continue to update my blog on Blogger for the time being, but if you follow what I'm doing then you should add the site to your favourites or bookmarks... it'll be the place to be!  Oh, and please, please, pretty please, with a cherry on top, share the site anywhere you visit where there might be an interest.  Let's really get the word out there so that this can be the greatest retro games book ever!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Budget Day - Bionic Granny (Commodore 64)

And finally, as if to show that my day hasn't all been fun and games (well, OK, it has been all games), I thought I'd play what is considered to be one of the biggest abominations in computer games history... Bionic Granny.

If you haven't played it before, and I hadn't, then you aren't prepared for the horrors that lie in wait.  This is truly a throwback to the days when software companies would take anything that loaded and throw it upon an unsuspecting public.  There weren't many reviews mags around in the early days, and they were a little afraid of upsetting software companies, so it was common for poor games to sell way more than they deserved, as nobody knew any better.

Bionic Granny is one such game.

Having said that, I'm pretty sure that nothing could have persuaded me to part with my cash for this.  It's not like they could have had great screenshots on the back of the box.  No amount of mocking up could make this look decent.

Don't go near her, kids. She's a nasty old crone.
The story, too, is shockingly bad.  But I can see why it might have appealed to people under the age of twelve.  I'll quote directly from the title screen, if I may:





Go on, lollipop lady... get in there and belt her one!
Alright... if you were a granny and were lucky enough to be bionic, why the hell would you use those powers to hit schoolkids on their way home?  Wouldn't you rather be rescuing cats or baking awesome scones, or something?

Also, the instructions say "don't let the lollipop lady throw lollipops at you".  Good luck with that... she roams around the top of the screen flinging them as though her life depended on it.  And as whatever bionic feature you are installed with has the disadvantage of rendering you unable to move forwards or backwards, there's not really much you can do to stop her.

In fact, there's no evidence that this granny is bionic at all... the lollipop lady is substantially quicker than her.  I think she's just a cantankerous old biddy who takes pleasure from whacking kids.  There's a place for menaces like that... and it provides free room and board at Her Majesty's pleasure.

Mad old bat needs locking up.
If the game had any semblance of fun or ironic humour to it, you maybe wouldn't mind.  But it's appalling.  You just toddle about at the bottom of the screen, hoping one of the homebound kids happens to meander into your stick, which will score you points.  There's no comedy, no entertainment, no fun.  It's a horrible piece of software, and if budget games had continued in this vein then the industry would have been in a horrible place indeed.

Fortunately, it became a breeding ground for real talent, as you've seen from today's posts.  We were blessed with imaginative, entertaining and enjoyable games, some of which were very ambitious, some of which were better than many full-priced games.  That era of pocket money games was pretty special, and we never saw it's like again.  We should think ourselves lucky for what we had... the kids of today may be spoiled, but they've missed out on one of the most memorable chapters of gaming history.

Budget Day - Jason's Gem (ZX Spectrum)

My search for previously unplayed games takes me to many places.  However, sometimes the games I find aren't particularly suitable for blog posts.  Sometimes they're too complicated to get into, or sometimes they're just too bland to write anything interesting about.  I play a lot of games looking for good blog fodder.

Jason's Gem has been sitting on my "to play" list for a couple of years now.  I've meant to play it and never got round to it.  That's partly because I've never played it before, and I've tended to see the name at times when I've needed a quick post.  To write about a game that's new to you, you need a bit of time.  Fortunately, today I've had some.

Aaaargh! My eyes!
The first screen of Jason's Gem is annoying and completely unnecessary.  Your spaceship glides down the screen, and you must land on a moving platform to pick up some cargo.  It's never specified what this cargo is, so unless it's your ship's laser then this irritating screen could have been left on the drawing board.

Having successfully completed this screen, I was horrified to find myself in a Lunar Lander/Caverns of Mars type of game.  Jason must not only pilot his craft to the bottom of the cave, he has to shoot his way through.  This is very difficult... you don't have much time to react and you need to be pixel perfect when moving through gaps.  To make it worse, you can leave a screen in such a position that you die instantly on the next.

That's ridiculous. Did the writers of Galaxy Quest invent this room?
Should you reach the bottom of the cave, Jason exits the ship to go exploring the cave in an attempt to find his missing gem.  I'll tell you what, that must be one hell of a gem because those caverns are terrifying!  Too terrifying for me... I was unable to negotiate my way to the end.

Jason's Gem is alright for a £1.99 game, but certainly not as good as its average rating on World of Spectrum.  I could certainly imagine myself persevering with it in 1985... it would have held up much better back then.  Now, though, it's a bit too obtuse to stick with.

Budget Day - Train Robbers (Commodore 64)

I'm heading back in time again for this latest game, but whereas I played a good guy in Kane, this time I'm playing a positively bad guy in the form of Cactus Pete, in Firebird's Train Robbers.

Cactus Pete is fairly prolific as robbers go... he's currently worth $4,000, which is no small amount of cash.  That doesn't concern Pete, though... he's constantly on the lookout for more trains to rob, and more lovely lolly.  And you're going to help him.

It's a dangerous business, train robbing.  First of all, you have to actually get on the train.  When you're a robber, you can't just buy a ticket.  Pete's method of entry is a little less straightforward.  He leaps onto his trusty steed and waits by the railway line.  When the train comes buy, he leaps from his horse, climbs the train's ladder, and runs along the rooftop to the cargo carriage at the back of the train.

That sounds like a piece of cake, but you try jumping a gap on a train at 80 miles per hour.  It's tricky.  It's even trickier when you consider that the railway cuts through a number of hills, meaning there are tunnels aplenty.  If Pete doesn't duck in time... well, it doesn't bear thinking about.

Sneak!  Sneak!  Sneak!
When (if) Pete makes it to the loot car, he can fill his boots.  All he has to do is climb down the ladder inside the car, pick up the two keys, unlock the safe and make off with his stash.  Oh, and avoid the two vicious dogs that patrol the carriage...

Should Pete manage to empty the safe without being bitten, he'll find himself back on top of the train.  Now he needs to get back to the front of the train where his horse will be waiting for him.  It's another tricky journey, with mailboxes to jump over or duck under.  Still, with all that adrenalin running from having completed another successful heist, that should pose no problem at all!

Is it dark in here, or is it just me?
Train Robbers is a funny little game.  It's funny as in odd, and funny as in amusing.  It has some great touches... the way the screen goes black and you can only see Pete's eyes when you go through a tunnel is particularly funny.  It's pretty tricky, too... I can say in all honesty that I've never managed to get back on my horse after a robbery, not in 1988 and not in 2013.  But I played it quite a bit, and it remains an entertaining little budget game.

Budget Day - Kwik Snax (ZX Spectrum)

I figured that any round up of budget games, especially this close to Easter, would not be complete without a Dizzy game.  Trouble was, I didn't much fancy any of that leaping around and putting objects in the right place carry on.  Luckily, Dizzy branched out a bit in later years... and that's how I came to play Kwik Snax.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Kwik Snax, but I don't think I was prepared for a Pengo clone.  After all, Pengo was an old and outdated game even when Kwik Snax was released, never mind now!  Still, if you think you have a good idea, you might as well go with it.  Pity I never really liked Pengo that much...

I like bananas, but I don't like rain.  Go away, rain!
Kwik Snax sees Dizzy in Mario mode, as his friends have all been kidnapped by the evil Zaks, and only Dizzy can rescue them.  As Zaks is insane, Dizzy must rescue them by collecting all the fruit from icy, hazard-filled mazes.  Bad guys were much more imaginative back then.

It's lucky that the walls of the mazes are made from blocks of ice, because Dizzy can push these around to facilitate easier fruit collection.  And not only that, the blocks will crush anything in their path once shoved, making them very handy weapons!

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Pity, I might need him with these vicious critters about!
Should Dizzy collect all the fruit in a level, he will move on to a bonus level.  These play differently in that only a set amount of time is available to collect the fruit, and once you start moving you can only change direction if you're stopped by a wall.  So if you make the wrong move, you're knackered.

It's a very playable and addictive game.  The bonus levels add much-needed variety, and there's a nice little Bomb Jack scoring mechanic, whereby you can collect all the flashing fruits in order for more points.  I had a lot of fun with Kwik Snax, much more than I was expecting, and I think I might go back to it once the day is done.

Budget Day - Oh No! (Commodore 64)

There is no way... no way, that you would buy Oh No! just from looking at the cover art. There's a cow with a space helmet on its head, an odd-looking furry animal, a desert and, in the background, a spacecraft.

The spacecraft is the important part. Oh No! is a shoot 'em up, and although the storyline is odd, the game most certainly is not...

In Oh No!, the year is 1,000,000 AD, and you are a breeder of space oxen. These beasts are very highly coveted by other entities, who will stop at nothing to get their hands or other genetically-modified appendages on them. The rustling bastards. So you must mount up on your trusty space-steed and put a stop to their stealing shenanigans.

Save the clock tower!  I mean, the cows.  Those glowing round things. Save them!
It's much simpler than it sounds as a game... confined within one (scrolling) screen, you must blast anything that comes within range and stop them from taking the oxen off the screen. If all the oxen are lost, the game is over. Them's the rules, and they're easy to follow...

And indeed, the game is simple in theory. Once you start playing it, though, you'll see that it's much more difficult in practice.

Oh No!, to my mind, stands right up there among the finest of frantic shooters. What it essentially does is to cross Robotron: 2084 with Defender and Missile Command. Wait... let me explain.

Right... *cracks knuckles* come on, then...
You have a playfield where you have to protect your oxen... they're like The Last Human Family, but in bovine form. But unlike in Robotron, they're not killed when enemies get to them. Instead, they're captured, and you have a limited amount of time to rescue them before they're taken off the playfield. See, that's like Defender.

The game is split up into different planets, and each planet has nine waves, with each being progressively more manic than the last. There's no break between waves. Once you destroy every enemy in a wave, the next one rushes in without a second thought. If you want any kind of a break for your trigger finger, you'll have to wait nine waves for it.

It's OK... I'll be your Defender...
As your only objective is to save your oxen, it's important to keep them close together or, if it all gets too much, let them all go except for one and be sure to defend that one to the end. That's the Missile Command aspect... it's very similar to your endgame there, where you concentrate on keeping one city intact.

Oh No! is a Sensible Software game, and probably one of their least well-known at that.  It was well-reviewed by ZZAP! 64, but I'm not sure how well it sold or was received in general. Comments on Lemon64 seem to be mixed, but I absolutely loved this game when I bought it and I still play it occasionally now. It's a really pure shoot 'em up high-score experience, guaranteed to get the adrenalin pumping. Lovely stuff.

Budget Day - Booty (ZX Spectrum)

Arrrr, Jim Lad (fer that be yer name)... yer on a ship that be occupied by naught but ghost pirates. But this ship is laden wi' booty... and it's yours fer the takin', if ye can outwit those scurvy knaves and scabbards, and empty the hold o' its goodies.

Arrrr... enough of that, Talk Like A Pirate Day is months away! Booty is a platform game where you play the put-upon cabin boy who, sick of his lot in life, decides to gather up as much of the pirates' loot as he can and, to use modern parlance for once, "do one".

No, Jim lad! Don't do it!
Naturally, they're not about to give up their ill-gotten gains as easily as all that, and they walk the decks, cutlasses in hand, all ready to hand out a damn good thrashing to anyone wi' sticky fingers. Whoops, sorry.

It's a clever little game, is Booty. For all the pirates and their parrots deal instant death, the biggest obstacle is the layout of the ship. Some of the rooms are really tricky to negotiate, with keys having to be picked up in the right order to allow you access to certain rooms at the right times. Oh, and some of the treasure is booby-trapped...

Do you think J-Lo or Beyonce would like this game?
I first played Booty on a mate's Spectrum, and I liked it so much that it was one of the first games I bought when I got my Commodore 64. Pity, then, that the 64 version was wretched and a huge disappointment (and waste of pocket money!). There's no such problem with the Spectrum version... it was a cracking release from Firebird, and gave me a taxing but enjoyable hour or so when playing it again. Arrrr, that it did. Oh, bugger.

Budget Day - Raging Beast (Commodore 64)

The matador.

Noble.  Proud.  Cruel.  Foolish.  All adjectives that can and have been used to describe the bullfighter in years gone by.  In today's "civilised" society, the matador is often considered barbaric.  However, the sport and tradition is an ancient one... it's tough to know, in this day and age, when something like bullfighting should be abandoned and when it can justifiably continue.

Or if you don't want to enter that debate, you can play Raging Beast.

A timeless battle is about to begin...
Proving that truly nothing was impossible, Firebird brought us a computer game based on the sport of bullfighting.  It seemed inconceivable that it could be any good, or even that it could be done, and yet here it was.  How could they get away with the slaughtering of bulls for computer entertainment?

They didn't even try.

In fact, the bull is the true star of Raging Beast.  As soon as the two protagonists enter the ring and stare each other down, you know that it's probably not going to end well for you.  When your only form of defence is a little red hankie, you need to be really good... because this bull knows what he's doing.

It appears as though the bull has the upper hand in this bout.
It's quite amazing just how much character has been packed into the few pixels that make up Alfonso the bull.  As soon as you start waving your red rag at him, he'll snort, he'll paw the ground, and then he'll start to approach you.

It's at this point that I make like the weedy guy up against the mighty gladiator in Monty Python's Life of Brian... I turn and run.

Doing this will not win you the game, but it's funny.  You will genuinely laugh as you're haring around the bullring with a hefty bull chasing after you.  But it doesn't get anything done, so at some point you have to grab the bull by the horns (not literally) and attempt to confront Alfonso.

Now... who exactly is in charge of this situation?
I used to be half-decent at this back in the day, and could "Olé" with the best of them.  But I don't mind admitting that I struggled to get to grips with it this time around.  I don't mind admitting it because, again, it was funny.  Getting stomped into the dirt, thrown into the air or flung onto the bull's back for an impromptu ride around the ring is good entertainment.

It can only last so long though, and eventually you get a little bored and want to move on to something else.  But for a unique, amusing and entertaining experience, Raging Beast hits the nail on the head.  And there's not even the slightest risk of injury!

Budget Day - Nonterraqueous (ZX Spectrum)

Time for a game I've never played before, despite always wanting to... the rather majestically named Nonterraqueous.

It's certainly a name that sticks with you.  Whether it was one of your favourite games or you only read a review, the chances are that if you've ever heard of it, reading this article will ring a small bell in the back of your brain.

Look, it's a bermb.  A bermb?  Yes, a bermb.
I first read about Nonterraqueous in ZZAP! 64, where it was given a lukewarm reception and a 48% review score.  As the Spetrum version seems to be more highly regarded, I thought I'd give that one a try today.  Fingers crossed...

The plot of the game sees a nightmarish future come true.  An evil computer has developed a superior intelligence and is using this to oppress the people that built it.  In an attempt to wrest back their lives and their freedom, the people have constructed a robot seeker droid and have sent it to locate the computer base and destroy it!

Now I'm a sproing helicoptery thing.  Wheeeee!
This isn't an easy task... the game is massive, with over a thousand screens!  So many screens for only £1.99... that would have been pretty much my ideal game in 1986.

My first play lasted seconds, as I absent-mindedly blundered into a photon thruster and died instantly.  Harsh!  Armed with this useful information, I set about my task with a little more caution.

White lines.  Don't do it.
As you make your way around the complex, you'll find bombs lying around, and it would be rude not to pick them up (also silly, as they'll be used to destroy the computer, no doubt).  You'll also notice "SWOP" machines, where you can change your form.  I'm sure this will be very useful in places... I've only done it so far because it looks nice.

Nonterraqueous brings to mind a number of similar games, such as Starquake and Arc of Yesod.  Having played it for a while, I don't think it really comes close to matching those classics.. the main problem being that you start every game on the same screen.  Randomising your starting position would have helped a lot, with so many screens to explore.  But there's undoubtedly a massive challenge here, and a lot of playtime for your couple of quid.

Budget Day - Kane (Commodore 64)

Boys love playing at being cowboys.  I'm no exception.  The (fairly) recent Red Dead Redemption allowed me to live out those Wild West fantasies in full, riding a horse around glorious barren landscapes in glorious sunsets, playing poker with the boys and taking down the bad guys.  Great stuff.

Of course, there have been cowboy games for almost as long as there have been games.  Possibly the earliest example was the arcade game Boot Hill, where you faced off against an opponent in a one-to-one shootout.  I loved playing against my dad on that game... we would later replicate it at home with Atari's Outlaw.

Anyone fancy a stir fry tonight?
Another of my favourite early Wild West games was Mastertronic's budget effort, Kane.  Written by John Darnell, who would later be responsible for classics such as Star Paws and Escape from Singe's Castle, it was owned (in one form or another) by probably everyone I knew.  We all thought it was a classic, although that might just have been because it was one of the first games we owned!

It was easy to be impressed by Kane, though.  For a start, the main sprite was basically Agent 4125 from Impossible Mission, in a cowboy hat.  And as the good agent was one of the best characters in computer games at the time, that was no bad thing.  The first level saw you shooting ducks with a bow and arrow, and they let out a rather pained sampled squawk when hit.  For a budget game, this first level alone made you sit up and take notice.

Other levels had just as much to impress.  The second and fourth levels feaured a very nicely animated horse... hey, it didn't take much to catch your eye in those days!  That said, those horse-jumping levels were a bit repetitive, and if you fell off in the wrong place you'd be stuck and your game would be over.

Peek-a-boo, I see you!  BLAM!
The third level saw Marshall McGraw, for he was the character you played, holed up in the town of Kane, with bad guys aplenty hiding out and hoping to take you down.  They'd appear in doorways, windows, up on rooftops or from behind barns.  If you weren't Quick Draw McGraw, they'd shoot you dead (or at least, dead enough to remove one of your lives).

Kane certainly had more than enough about it to keep us teens entertained for a good while.  Although it wouldn't have been great value at full price, it was a great little budget game, and it kept us occupied for many an evening whilst waiting for something else to roll into town.

Budget Day - Star Farce (ZX Spectrum)

Here's another game I played for an earlier edition of Budget Day.  I picked this one because I love the arcade game Star Force. Still, I was a bit wary... would this be a total pisstake?  I'm not necessarily a fan of parody games, unless they're done really well. I suppose there was only one way to find out.

It turns out that Star Farce is a really good vertically-scrolling shooter. The reason for the name lies in the amusing plot... aliens have been trying to make contact with Earth for years, but every time they do, paranoid Earthlings send out waves of attack craft to wipe out these "aggressors". The Universe is collectively sick of this, and to put a stop to it (and to save those that are left), they've sent in a fighter pilot to destroy Earth's resources and attack craft, and all its inhabitants while they're at it. You are that fighter pilot.

Pew, pew, boooom!
I was amazed by Star Farce. For just £1.99, this would have been amazing value. The graphics are really great, being detailed and colourful. Pretty much everything you see is destructible... it felt fantastic to shoot a power generator and see it set off a chain reaction that destroyed everything connected to it.  There are loads of other tricks and surprises, too, one of which sees you going under the planet's surface to tackle a mothership.

It is, however, very, very difficult.  You won't be completing this game any time soon, that's a guarantee.  In fact, you have to start learning the enemy attack patterns to progress, otherwise you'll be creamed in seconds, every time.  I can imagine that might be a problem for some, but it didn't bother me in the slightest here.

Off to see 'Er Indoors...
You also get loads of options before you even start playing the game. Star Farce is one of the most full-featured and entertaining shmups I've seen on either Spectrum or C64, which makes the price (and the tiny 58% review in CRASH) all the more surprising. The only quibble I really had was with the firing rate of the ship, but even that can be eased through a Star Force-style pick-up. Oh, and I suppose the amount of colour can be slightly detrimental at times as it can get har to pick out what's happening on occasions.  That notwithstanding, Star Farce is probably as close to an arcade game as you could get on the Spectrum I had a really great time with it, and quite fancy another go now...

Budget Day - Arnie (Commodore 64)

If it's the early Nineties and you're making a game about an all-action hardman, you could do a lot worse than calling it Arnie.  Just that one name conjurs up images of a gun-toting muscleman, cutting a swathe through entire squadrons of armed bad guys.  It did then and it still does now, twenty years down the line.

It's appropriate enough, because the Arnie of this game is, indeed, a one-man army.  Dropped into a warzone by chopper, it's up to you to guide this man of steel around the map, shooting down everything in his path, until the inevitable confrontation with the mad dictator at the source of all the troubles.

There's not much that's as satisfying as exploding enemy hardware.
It's a tried-and-tested scenario, but the game is a bit more interesting and enjoyable than its cliched storyline.  That's partly because of the graphical viewpoint... Arnie is in glorious isometric 3D, which is fairly unusual for a game of this type.  It does mean that your viewing area is restricted at time (when you reach the edge of the map), but this doesn't really cause any problems.

Unusually, the game is not split into levels.  You're deposited into the jungle, and from there you just make your way across the landscape until you (hopefully) reach the end.  I often wondered why more action/shooting games weren't like this.  Life isn't split into levels, nor are action films.  Why shouldn't a shooting game be one seamless journey?  It works really well, with not a single break in the action.

That enemy truck looks dangerous. Luckily, my rocket is about to take it out.

Arnie was programmed by Chris Butler, and you get a little bit of a feeling that he was out to prove just how good a shooter he could program, having been hamstrung by Elite when programming (the still very enjoyable) Commando conversion.  This is a bit slower-paced than Commando, but still has plenty going on.  With extra weapons to pick up and new enemies and obstacles introduced along the way, it's never boring.

Arnie was released later in the Commodore 64's lifetime, and as a result it had a more expensive budget price of £3.99.  It was still well worth that bit extra though... I never regretted the purchase, and even today it's a worthwhile blast and a fair old challenge.