Sunday, 16 September 2012

Day 113 - U.S. Gold

The north-east of England was invaded by the might of the United States of America last week, as they dragged us into a more civilised world with the opening of a massive Krispy Kreme doughnut and coffee shop.

Mmmm... delicious, glazed, doughnutty goodness!
Oh, what?  You thought this post would be about games?  Sorry!  Well, I'll see if I can squeeze some in while I'm here...

When you think about U.S. Gold, you think of a meganormous American company shipping their exotic foreign wares to a grateful British gaming public.  In truth, it wasn't exactly like that.  True, they did produce or publish some amazing stuff, but they also put out more than their fair share of dross, particularly in the early days.

Interestingly, several of their better games, particularly in later years, were programmed by British coders.  One of my favourite U.S. Gold games was Archer MacLean's Dropzone.  That wasn't always the case...

These are the things that will be killing you now.
I first played Dropzone at a mate's house.  I didn't particularly want to, after I'd seen him play it.  Clearly, it was a Defender variant... and I hated Defender, on the grounds that I was rubbish at it.  Still, I gave Dropzone a go... and I was rubbish at that, as well.  It was soul-destroyingly difficult.  Not to worry, I didn't need to play it any more, I had plenty of other games to be getting on with and it wasn't like I owned it or anything.

Then, one fateful day, I was walking around Newcastle with ten pounds to burn.  There was no question in my mind that it would be spent on a game (or some games)... the only question was which game?

I'm so busy, my head is spinning...
It was then that I saw a compilation on the shop shelf... U.S. Gold's Arcade Hall of Fame.  It looked amazing.  Spy Hunter... Tapper... Up 'N' Down... Aztec Challenge... Blue Max.  I'd played all of them before, and the only one I didn't love was Blue Max.  Better still, I didn't own any of them.  It was a must-buy for £9.99.

I had a great time when I got home, loading them up one at a time for an evening of cracking entertainment.  Spy Hunter, Tapper and Up 'N' Down were all excellent arcade conversions.  Aztec Challenge was great fun with excellent music (although if you've ever tried to play it on a black and white telly, you'll know that there's a problem that effectively renders you blind on one of the levels).

It's the end of the world as we know it.
Blue Max was the last game I went to load, because I hadn't much liked it when I played it and so wasn't really bothered about it.  I hit Shift and Run/Stop, pressed Play on tape and started reading the instructions.  I missed the "FOUND" message, but looked up when I heard the familiar screech of the Novaload... whereupon I was dismayed to see the word DROPZONE in the middle of the grey screen.

I didn't even know how this could be.  I mean, I knew I wasn't exactly excited by the prospect of Blue Max, but Dropzone wasn't even supposed to be in this compilation!  Why would they replace Blue Max with that, of all games?  Damn them!

I played it a few times, and only broke the 10,000 barrier once or twice.  It was so hard and I hated it.  I vowed never to play it again.

Some things never change...
But over time I kept reading about how it was a modern classic, and one of the best games ever, and how everyone loved it.  As someone who considered myself a pretty decent gamer, I figured I owed it to myself, and the game, to give it one more shot.

Slowly, with intense concentration, I began to improve.  I reached 20,000, then 30,000... and I found myself enjoying the game.  With the computer on the floor, my left foot on the Commodore key for my invisibility cloak and my right foot on the space bar for the smart bomb, I had a set-up which was comfortable and saw me making decent progress.  And I saw the game for what it really was... an incredibly challenging shoot 'em up which ranked up there with the very best.

Foot, meet face.
I think my high score on Dropzone was about 153,000.  That's not amazing by any stretch, but it's not bad and it shows that I made a more than reasonable effort at learning the game.  I still enjoy it to this day... it's probably Archer MacLean's best game, although the superb International Karate runs it close.  It would be great if I could get a few quotes from Archer in my book, and it goes without saying I'll be including him and his games regardless.


  1. Hopefully you'll get a few quotes from him. He seems quite contactable. I've had a couple of emails from him over the years, the first one was from 2000 or so expressing his gratitude of Dropzone being the "Game of the Week" on my website!

  2. Sure the Atari version is quicker, but the C64 version is incredible regardless, and one of my favourite C64 games of all time.

  3. Good article!
    Funny coincidence, I wrote a quickie about the US. Arcade Hall of Fame and Dropzone a couple days ago:

  4. You used your feet? Wow. I sucked really hard at this and really wanted to keep playing but it was effectively pointless. I've been considering dragging out the 1084 and my Amiga for some gaming, I may add the C64 to that and try your feet technique. Nice work as always Paul.

  5. Oh man, the feet on the keyboard technique was a staple of games that required the space bar! Green Beret, Gryzor... I know there were loads of others, too!

  6. I'm pretty much in the same camp as you, Paul. Dropzone was just too hard for teenage me but I've recently come back to it (thanks to celebrating 30 days of C64 in August) and I'm hooked. I also found Archer MacLean's tactics and tips in one of my Zzap! mags which helps!

    And, yes, I used the foot-to-the-space-bar technique for a few games as well. :)