Monday, 27 August 2012

Day 93 - the objects of my affection

One of the great things about the British is our love for the absurd.  We can take anything, no matter how ridiculous, and fashion it into something not just acceptable, but ground-breaking.  Take Monty Python's Flying Circus, for example.  A lot of their comedy sketches were bizarre, and a fair number of them didn't work in hindsight, but they were embraced the world over and are still revered today.  British computer games used to be like that.

If you consider today's multi-mega-million dollar industry, it's all about the lowest common denominator.  Make a product that ticks all the boxes for the masses, and it's a go.  It's much trickier to get backing if you have a brand-new, off-the-wall idea.  That's probably why indie games are having such a resurgence.

Attack of the Mutant Camels... on my iPhone.
Pity the controls are rubbish (not Jeff Minter's fault!).
If British games in the Eighties had to go through the same sort of committee approval as they do now, then we wouldn't have had much to choose from.  It's fair to say that a decent number of them were quite mental.  With talented, often maverick individuals holed up in their bedrooms or tiny offices with little to reference other than arcade games, any subject was fair game, and nobody thought anything of it.

This was great, and led to some incredibly imaginative, unique games.  And in the grand spirit of Monty Python, some of the adversaries we had to contend with, or some of the protagonists we played as, were about as unlikely as you can get.  I thought I'd look at a few.

Even if you've never watched Monty Python, this might look familiar...
Miner Willy was one of the first true gaming icons.  Playing as a miner isn't necessarily that odd... it's just another human character.  But Matthew Smith put the poor fella in some real nightmare scenarios.

Both Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy are legendary names in the world of gaming.  And although at their core they are simple platform games, each is blessed with the twisted heart of an evil genius.  The games, that is... I'm not saying that Matthew Smith is evil, although I will level the charge of genius at him.

I need a wee, but I think I'd be better off holding it in...
When Willy starts exploring the abandoned mine in Manic Miner, it doesn't seem that odd... OK, so finding penguins in a long-lost cavern underneath London is a bit mental, but you can run with that.  It's when you find yourself having to leap over animated toilets, their lids flapping wildly and angrily, that you realise something darker is at work here.  Vicious telephones only serve to compound the bizarre nature of the dangers at hand.

That darkness was expanded upon with the sequel, Jet Set Willy.  Doing what all good sequels should, it increased the size and scope of the game massively, and threw far more off-the-wall enemies and situations your way.  Forced by your maid to tidy up your mansion after an epic party if you want to sleep it off, you find there's far more to this abode than meets the eye.

What in the name of all things Holy is that thing?  And why is it in my house?
Chainsaws, spinning razor blades, secateurs and ice creams are all out to get you this time, but that's only the half of it.  Nightmare visions await, with mad chefs, dancing rabbits and scary floating heads which will freak you out, and if they don't, well, there's always the room that turns you into a flying pig...

It's heady stuff, to be honest.  The design, whether intentional or accidental, is such that you're compelled to keep playing after yet another irritating death.  And, as with many games of this type, you want to keep exploring so you can see what's around the next corner.  It's a template that was followed for quite a while, until platform games grew up a bit and started being either cartoony or a bit more realistic.  For a couple of years, though, they were gloriously... manic.

Something tells me that alcohol wasn't the only thing ingested at this party...
Another gaming legend that refused to bow to the norm, whatever the norm may have been back then, is Jeff Minter.  You might have gathered as much from the moment you saw his company was called Llamasoft, although strictly speaking, maybe it should be called Ungulatesoft, as no hooved animal is left unloved by the Yak.  Attacks by mutant camels, deep-space sheep and. erm, lawnmowing are just some of the unconventional situations you'll find in his games.

Possibly his finest example of beast/object cross-pollination, though, is Ancipital.  Playing the role of Cippy, an anthropomorphic goat-like creature from an unnamed planet far away, wasn't enough, as far as Jeff Minter was concerned.

A 'No Smoking' sign on a cigarette break? Is that ironic, or not?
You found yourself trapped in a 100-room complex where you were asaulted by all kinds of common-or-garden earthly objects.  Apples, boots, hammers, spanners, hamsters, floppy disks... all these and more roam the complex, looking to bring an end to the invading critters.  Better still, you returned fire with a range of equally mundane yet appropriate objects, almost antidotes in fact, such as bananas, washers and cassette tapes.

Ancipital is an excellent game, and provides a ton of entertainment even today.  I'm of the opinion that it would make a superb iOS game... let's hope that Jeff Minter has similar thoughts.

David and Richard Darling formed Codemasters, who are now renowned for producing some of the fastest and flashiest current-gen racing games.  But they didn't start out like that.  They started out as an 8-bit budget game label, selling games with the word Simulator in the title for £1.99 a pop.  That was relatively successful for them, but things really took off when they published a series of games which put you in control of... an egg.

Like a whirlpool, it never ends...
Dizzy was its name, and it had arms and legs, and a big smiley face.  It jumped and flipped and rolled its way around a variety of landscapes, searching for the correct items to use in the correct places.  More of an arcade adventure than a platform game, it had been done before, but thanks to Andrew and Philip Oliver's eggy vision, Dizzy really popularised the genre and gave it legs, so to speak.  Six sequels were testament to the egg's popularity, and even today, people clamour for a new game.  I doubt that a game starring an egg would get greenlit today, even at Codemasters, although with the way the iPhone market is going these days, who knows?

Who remembers Fat Worm Blows A Sparky?  No, it wasn't Ron Jeremy's first gay porn film.  It's actually an ingenious game where you controlled a worm that was stuck inside your ZX Spectrum.  The object of the game was to collect fifty items called Spindles, then find a disk drive and clone yourself.  Unfortunately, roaming around inside the Speccy were Creepers and Crawlers, and if these bugs managed to pounce on Fat Worm then eventually he would perish.  His only defence was to fire Sparkies at the bugs.

Hope there aren't any seagulls inside this Spectrum...
You what?  If you pitched that now, you'd be laughed out of the room.  And yet, back in November 1986, CRASH gave it a massive 95% score.  It really was quite an achievement for its day.  Of course, this wouldn't be the last time worms would play an integral part in a game...

There were many others, of course.  Monty on the Run featured a mole versus a whole host of marauding household objects.  Fox Fights Back saw you playing as a gun-toting fox, defending himself against the likes of cycling beagles, mad squirrel bombers and egg-chucking chickens.

To progress, you must get past the flying clock and roaming teapot.  Naturally.
Even an early game like Casey Jones, a clone of Moon Patrol, Britished the whole thing up by putting you in a train rather than a moon buggy, and had you attacked by flying burgers, Horaces going skiing, and rogue Melbourne Houses (did the author have a game rejected by them or something?  Maybe I'll get to ask!).

We all love a bit of Horace. There's something not quite right about this, though.
This led to many early computer games feeling slightly amateurish, but that's because they were.  They were also very endearing, with a charm that was lost when games became soldier versus soldier, space marine versus space marine.  And while there's no arguing that current mega-budget games are polished to the nth degree, finely-honed, slick and ultra-professional, you can't help but wish that someone would throw in a daft gun that fired bananas, or something.

The quick brown fox can't outrun the lazy dog on a bike.
That's why he's carrying a shotgun.
I think a large part of the reason household objects played such a part in early games was the 'one man band' factor.  It's quite likely that a number of programmers in the early days could make a game, but were not graphic artists, and so used characters that you would see in every day life and which were easy to draw.  As games, and the process of making them, grew more sophisticated, you saw dedicated graphic artists producing stunning works of art and some great sprites and characters.

This was an important step in the evolution of video games... they would never be quite the same again.  It's something I'm planning to talk about in the book to a degree, with comments from programmers and dedicated graphic artists hopefully providing some interesting insight.  It'll certainly be interesting to me... I'm absolutely terrible at drawing!

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Day 89 - A Gamer Forever Voyaging Presents - Andrew Braybrook

Hey gang,

I'm working on something at the moment that could be a fun piece, but there's no way I'd get it finished today, and I wanted to put something up, so I thought this might be just the job.

If you read my other blog, A Gamer Forever Voyaging. you might remember that, back in 2011, I did a retrospective on Andrew Braybrook's Commodore 64.  It went down fairly well, but I suppose you'd expect that because they're great games.  Anyway, one of my readers is a big Braybrook fan, and he took it upon himself to take what I'd written, combine it with ZZAP! 64's reviews of Braybrook games, and put them all together in a PDF, available for download as a published work for free!

Now, why didn't I mention this before, you might wonder?  Well, the truth is, it's my fault.  I'd planned to write more... stuff about Andrew Braybrook's enhanced re-releases of his C64 games, and also about his Amiga games.  They were going to be added to the PDF as exclusive material, making it something worth downloading for regular readers of the blog.  And I just never got around to it.  Sorry.

An exclusive look at the cover!  Get it downloaded!
For all that time, it's sat there, unloved by the masses, albeit not forgotten about.  But in the latest issue of Retro Gamer magazine, there's a look at Braybrook's Uridium, with a small retrospective on his other games.  And it struck me that it might be nice to "release" the A Gamer Forever Voyaging PDF at this time, to kind of capitalise on that.

So, here it is, or rather, the link to the page where you can download it: A Gamer Forever Voyaging Presents - A Guide to Andrew Braybrook

It's a little bit rough around the edges, which again is my fault.  Basically, Tony (the splendid fellow who put it together) knocked this up for me to look at, and I said, "Great!  Don't do anything else just yet, I'll give you more stuff to put in it".  And then I didn't.  So it's a bit warts-and-all... it hasn't been edited for spelling mistakes, for instance.

If you can get past the fact it's not a final draft, though, I'm quite chuffed with it.  My first printed work, so to speak!  And it just goes to show that there really are people who like what I do.  Many thanks to Tony for putting in the time and effort to produce this... hopefully, with my book in the works, it's just a taste of things to come...

Oh, alternatively, you can read each of my articles at the following links:

Andrew Braybrook - A quick C64 history
Gribbly's Day Out

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Day 87 - what do YOU want?

I realise it's a bit dull to write posts that aren't actually about anything, but I figure these things are important.  It's your book as well as mine... you are the people I'm writing it for.

With that in mind, the question is... what do you want?

Currently, I'm writing pen-pics about the people in the book, and then about each of their games, with quotes from the Gods themselves about each game (or maybe select games, if they wrote a lot).  I'm finishing up with a bit about what they're up to now.

Some of you might not find that very interesting, though.  I'm trying not to do a warts-and-all book... more of a celebration of what we had.  But I'm aware that it could stray more towards the realm of the reference book then.

It's all about finding a happy medium.  I want it to be interesting and fun to read, and not too dry. But I haven't got a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff so far, and by that, I mean any tales of scandal or gossip.  In going down that road, there's a risk of annoying almost everyone that's in there, and inviting slander cases!

Anyway... it's tricky doing a book like this by yourself, because what I want to hear might not be what you want to read about.  On the other hand, it's not a group project, so I just can't go jumping to everyone's tune.  But a bit more in the way of suggestions and constructive criticism can never hurt.  And it's never too late to go back to people with a few more questions...

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Day 85 - here's an idea

You know me by now, I'm all about sharing thoughts and ideas for this thing.  I've had a couple lately, but bear in mind that even at 85 days in, these are still the very early stages and anything I dream up might not necessarily happen.

One of my ideas has stemmed from digging through some of my old stuff.  In there, I found a book: Kerrang!" Direktory of Heavy Metal: The Indispensable Guide to Rock Warriors and Headbangin' Heroes.

Yes, that's the whole title.  That's not what I'm taking from it, though.  The book is an A-Z of heavy metal groups, from the late Sixties up until the book's publication in the early Nineties.  Now, I'm not going to cover a timescale like that.  But I was already planning around doing this in some kind of A-Z format... this got me thinking a bit deeper.

Hands up if you had the faintest idea what you were doing when you played this?
Who am I to decide who our Gods were?  I've got a big list of people to include, sure.  But is it big enough?  I'm considering having entries for a much higher number of people.  Even if it's just a name and what they worked on, and maybe a personal recommendation as to what you should try from their works, I think it might be worthwhile.  Much of the point of books like this is having your memory jogged by something you might have otherwise forgotten, and saying "Ohhh yeah!" with a smile.

Naturally, there will be plenty of large entries with lots of text and quotes.  That's always been the plan, and it remains so.  But this is something interesting to mull over in the coming weeks.

This idea throws up another possibility for consideration: if I do make this a much bigger A-Z-style project, do I also make it more international?  I really, really want to cover the British programmers that don't get the mentions they deserve in these kinds of publications.  Don't get me wrong there, my focus on them will not shift or diminish one little bit.  But the other programmers were our Gods, too.  You think back to the classic Accolade titles, for instance, or Interplay's RPGs.  We loved them, so should they go in?

Much like a famous American from the past, my mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.  In other words, I've got a lot to think about.  And it's all great.  I'm really enjoying myself doing this.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Day 84 - Everybody's working for the weekend

I had a day off yesterday.  Not from work... no, I still had to go trailing there and back.  No, it was a day off from the book and the blog.  I was home by about 7:15, and I could have done something on it, but I just fancied having a little rest.

Instead, I switched on my recently-neglected XBox 360.  I really haven't given it much time at all lately, and there were a couple of XBLA games I fancied checking out from their poorly-titled Summer of Arcade.  The first game I tried was Deadlight.

Standing here is all well and good, but what the hell do I do now?
If you haven't heard of Deadlight, it's the latest in a seemingly endless stream of zombie games.  You don't need me to tell you that the market is on the verge of hitting the saturation point when it comes to games featuring zombies.  If they're just in there because "OMG ZOMBIES!" then it's a bit wearing.  But if it's a good game and the setting is used well, then we can always take another one.

Deadlight is a good game.  You know what it reminded me of, just a little bit?  Flashback.  I think the animation is the main reason for that, but the game itself is a side-scrolling platform game where you have to solve puzzles while avoiding the zombie outbreak, all the while searching for your family and safety.  I haven't played all that much of it yet, but what I have played was enjoyable and it's presented really well.

The other game I tried was Dust: An Elysian Tail.  This game is also a side-scroller, but it's very different from Deadlight.  It's a fast-action beat 'em up with RPG overtones, levelling up, items to collect and a shady merchant, apparently on his holidays from Resident Evil 4, who you can buy useful items from.  It's got some beautiful graphics, although a few of the monsters are a touch dull.  But that's being a bit harsh and nitpicky.

The whirling Dust Storm attack is great, but it makes for crap screenshots.
You play as a trinity of sorts... you control Dust, the main character, but your sword is alive and talks, and there's an odd flying thing called Fidget who accompanies you with her terrible voice acting.  In fact, I reckon the voice actor was also responsible for the voices in Trouble Witches Neo.  That's not a bad thing... those voices were so bad they were good, and this is heading in that direction too.  It doesn't detract from the game at all, and I'm looking forward to playing it some more.

So there you have it... what I did on my day off.  Well, you have to keep it current sometimes.  And in doing so, it's good to see that in these days of first-person 3D ultra-realistic games there's still plenty of room for classic side-scrolling action.  A good game is a good game, simple as that.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Day 82 - Who were your Gods?

I realise that I'm talking about all the things I'm going to do with this book... the people I'm going to feature, the games I'm going to write about.  And I've got a very long list of both.  But it's not exhaustive.  It couldn't be.

Having said that, this is called They Were Our Gods, not They Were My Gods.  Now, I have my vision for the book, and that's important.  I won't just start jumping to the tune of others every time I'm given a suggestion.  But I do welcome suggestions, and I've always said that.

I also think it's important to be open and to have a dialogue going here.  And I'd like to further that where possible.  The more this is talked about, the better, as far as I'm concerned.  I love receiving comments on my pieces, whether they're good or bad (and to be fair, there haven't been any bad ones yet).

Bear in mind that I do have a Twitter feed and a Facebook page; you can find them at the right hand side of this blog.  Please follow me or like my page if you don't already.  I'd welcome more discussion in those places, too.

And so, to the point of this post: who were your Gods?  Like I said, my list is extensive but not exhaustive.  If you had a particular game or programmer that you thought was great, even if they were obscure or nobody else liked them, then they could still warrant inclusion in a book of this type.  I've certainly got some obscure personal favourites down that I want to mention, so don't be shy!  Shout up, and we can get a great discussion going.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Day 81 - Paul is in the living room

You know, sometimes when I'm writing these things and I have my titles at the top there, I feel like I'm in the Big Brother house, with all that "Day 36", "Day 81" stuff.  It probably doesn't help me much when trying to promote this thing, either.  But I think it's important I do that, because keeping track of the time it takes to do this is good for spurring me on and making sure this doesn't drag on until the end of time.

I haven't got much that's game-related to write about today, as it happens.  I was absent yesterday... I was out with the lads, in a pub, taking part in a Fantasy Football auction.  It was great fun, and I think I picked a good team.  Fingers crossed I can win a bit of cash.

Right, England, your time has come!
It actually got me thinking about football games again.  There are some absolute classics that I've already written pieces on... the Match Day games, Football Manager... but there's another one that was also important in shaping one of today's classics, and it's one that maybe not so many people have played.  That game is Track Suit Manager.

I just fancied a game of that today, especially as there was a round of international matches taking place this evening.  So I loaded it up, installed myself as England manager, and I was away.

Hmmm... Butterworth or Hardyman?  The agony of choice!
The good memories came back, and as soon as you get into a game you see the one innovation it brought to the table that remains to this day.  That innovation is the commentary. As the match progresses, rather than showing you the action, it's described to you through text. It feels a bit like you're listening to the match, and the sense of tension that's built is palpable.

It was also quite a laugh to take my pick of the cream of England's players... who could resist the stout defensive qualities of Mel Sterland or the midfield guile of Glynn Snodin?  There are 100 players to pick from for your squad, or you can choose another country altogether if you so wish.

It's easy, this management lark.
The challenge of leading your country to World Cup success is always irresistible, but it does take time, so I'm just a little way into the campaign.  But the hook, as always, is very strong, because of the innovative (for the time) commentary.  It's easy to see why it was taken on by the Championship Manager series (and now into the Sports Interactive Football Manager games)... it's simply because it works so well.

I doubt I'll be able to track down its author, but it would make a nice companion to Football Manager, as the two games between them are responsible for the management games we know, love and are completely addicted to today.  How many hours did you lose to them?

Monday, 13 August 2012

Day 79 - get up in the morning shooting them dead, sir...

... so that our race can beeee saved.



Yes, today's post is about one of the finest Commodore shoot 'em ups ever.  It's another game I bought the first chance I got... no waiting for the second-hand shop this time.  There was always a special kind of excitement when you bought a new full-price game.  You'd spend the bus journey home poring over the instructions, maybe letting your mate have a look at the inlay while you familiarised yourself with the game before you'd even played it.  It's not the same now, with demos and YouTube videos available well before the games are released.  I think we've lost a little bit of the air of anticipation.

Just once, I'd love to see one of those walkers fall off the ceiling.
Now, if you followed my other blog, A Gamer Forever Voyaging, then you might feel a bit cheated here, as a lot of this post is lifted from the piece I wrote about this game over there, back in February 2011.  So if you've read it before, you might feel a little nostalgic.  Hey, I've used brand new screen shots, what more do you want?

If you haven' t read it before, then you still might feel nostalgic as you think back to the time when you loaded up this ZZAP! 64 Gold Medal winner and had your mind blown.  Armalyte was grander in scope and ambition than probably any 8-bit computer shmup had previously shown, and was lapped up by any fans of arcade blasters with half a brain.

I'm blue, bah-dn-bee, bah-dn-bouw.
The plot of Armalyte is... oh, who cares? Something or other that loosely ties it in with Delta... apparently, it seemed like a good idea to market this as a sequel to that game, as if this wasn't good enough to stand on its own.  As it happens, it's more than good enough, and certainly doesn't need the Delta II subtitle it was lumbered with.

Armalyte is a game that takes every other shoot 'em up on the Commodore 64, and ramps up all their best bits by a few notches. It starts in classic Nemesis/Gradius fashion, with your ship flying from left to right as waves of enemies barrel toward you, intent on your destruction. The power-up system is different, though... rather than collecting pods left behind by the destruction of enemy formations, as in Konami's classic, weapons pods are found floating in space, and you activate them by blasting them.

For some reason I fancy a trip to Red Lobster now.
Shooting the floating pods repeatedly switches them through a cycle that includes increased forward fire, rear fire and vertical fire, among others. And if that's not enough for you, there are three huge laser weapons you can switch between that are very satisfying to unleash. Oh, and you start the game with a drone ship which replicates your firepower, which is just as well, given everything you have to attempt to cope with...

There are a few things that elevate Armalyte beyond the bog-standard shooter. The first thing you're likely to notice is the number of opposing ships that you have to deal with. The attack waves come thick and fast, with each containing a good number of enemies. They're relentless, and they're difficult to deal with as they whip about at an often alarming rate. It's overwhelming at first, and you'll find yourself crushed into space dust far more often than you'd like.

What's that? The last one wasn't a boss? This is the boss? Ohhh, damn...
Then there are the levels themselves. Every one is huge and you'll often be praying for the relative safety of empty space, as you'll frequently find yourself with just a small gap to squeeze through, which mightn't be so bad if it wasn't for the alien attack ships waiting on the other side...

There's quite a bit of variety to the levels, which is highly commendable. OK, so the game loads each level separately, but I can think of plenty of multiload games that didn't try so hard. The levels change in colour as you move through them, and each has its own style, giving the game a massive sense of scale.

Ha! Eat laser death, you giant, flying pincer thing.
Should you negotiate the countless minions and treacherous landscapes, you'll find that each level has its own gigantic boss to overcome. These are actually probably the weakest points of Armalyte. They're not bad, don't get me wrong... they're just a teensy bit too similar to each other. It's always been pretty difficult to come up with good enemy boss ships, it seems, and for all they look impressive, especially when they take it upon themselves to fly across the screen at you, I can't help but feel they could have been better somehow. But that's as much a constraint of the horizontally-scrolling shoot 'em up as anything else.  And I'm not a game designer, so it's all very well for me to say that when I almost certainly couldn't dream up anything to even match them.  I'll just shut up now.

This lot almost make The Red Arrows look dull!
Armalyte is a wonder of the 8-bit era. It came at a time when people thought they could no longer be surprised or impressed by a Commodore 64 game, and were proven wrong in slack-jawed amazement. It was easily Thalamus' most impressive release to date from a technical standpoint, and fully deserving of its Gold Medal, and any other honours that may have been thrown its way. It's good enough to make me want to play again now that I've finished writing about it... the sign of a top-notch game if ever there was one.

You can bet it'll have a place in the book, probably with nice big screenshots too.  Hopefully there'll be some accompanying words from the lads behind it as well.  It's no accident that it's consistently in "Best of C64" lists... it's one of the crowning glories of its time.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Day 78 - like throwing three pickled onions into a thimble

I wasn't sure what I'd be doing today... yesterday's blowout had left me a little bereft of ideas.  But then the sad news came through that legendary Geordie darts commentator Sid Waddell had sadly passed away, and I knew what I had to do... 180!

Darts is a hard sport to do in video game form, especially when you're only using a keyboard or joystick as a controller.  Not only that, but as Julian Rignall said back in 1986, a board and a packet of cheapo darts hardly costs more than yer average computer game, so why buy a game when you could play the real thing?

Still, many tried, and most failed, until Binary Design came along with their budget title 180.

That pub carpet is very authentic.
One of the problems with early computer darts games was that they lacked fun.  Darts is essentially a pub game, played with mates for a laugh.  Although it helps to be decent at arithmetic, it's not purely a game of number crunching.  And this is one of the areas where the Binary Design gang got it right.

If you ever watched darts on the telly in the Eighties, and you must have at some point, you'll know that it was a sport played by oversized men wearing ridiculous shirts.  180 positively celebrated this fact, with some ludicrous opponents for you to battle.  Who could ever forget the lack of subtlety of Big Belly Bill, or the strategic nous of Tactical Ted?

Ste Pickford's disembodied hand isn't just an underdog, it's an underpuppy!
The C64 and Spectrum games are basically the same, but they do play a little differently.  The aim is the same... beat a series of opponents over a number of legs from 501 down.  The control method is the same... control Ste Pickford's disembodied hand as it wobbles across the board, making sure you line it up with where you want to throw your dart, and then trying to let go at the right time.  What is noticeable is that in the C64 game, the dart pretty much goes where you release it, whereas in the Spectrum version it flies up a bit.  So if you alternate between the two games, you have a bit of an adjustment to make.

Look at the state of him.  The flash ones are always easiest to take out.
Chances are you played one version or the other, though, and so you wouldn't have encountered this.  What you would have encountered is a fun time, taking on progressively more difficult opponents in your quest to be the best arrer chucker on the planet.  It might have been a quid more than the average budget game, but it was well worth it, especially if you had a human opponent.

There's only one word for 180... magic darts!  RIP Sid, you gave the game a voice like no other.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Day 77 - a sporting chance

Right, now that I've finished with all that tedious job application stuff, I can finally get back to the business of playing games.  I've missed that in this last week!  Today, I decided that I'd treat myself to a sporting extravaganza, which ties in nicely with the last weekend of the Olympics.  I thought I'd play sports games or events that are featured in the Olympics.  I decided not to necessarily focus on any one person or any aspect of the book... purely writing about what I've played, instead.

Although there were arcade conversions of classic multi-event sports games on the 8-bit systems, there were a surprising amount of original games based on sports, too.  Many of them were quite successful, meaning that when we weren't out kicking a ball around in fields or the streets, we had plenty of athletic activity to keep us busy in front of the TV screens.  I probably can't cover everything in detail, but hopefully you'll enjoy this look at our computerised world of sport.

What's an Olympic Games without an opening ceremony?
The first multi-event game I ever played in my own home was Activision's Decathlon, on the Atari 2600/VCS.  It was a good job the Atari joystick was a sturdy effort, because this legendary game would have broken a lesser stick in no time at all.  The amount of waggling required was phenomenal, and I'm certain that our generation had the biggest biceps of any era of teenagers as a result of this and arcade games like Track and Field.

Once computers became more commonplace, we were treated to more sports games than we could ever have imagined.  I remember the time I went to a friend's house and found he had Daley Thompson's Decathlon for his Spectrum.  We must have practically battered those rubber keys into submission that afternoon.  Featuring the ten traditional decathlon events, it used the usual waggling control method to build up power, helping you to run faster, jump further and be more awesome.

Not showing the greatest technique, there.
You were (somewhat generously) given three lives to help you through the game, although technically you should have been allowed to play every event, regardless of score.  Although it would be surpassed by later titles, it became a legend in its own right and was a great starting point for the computer multi-event sports game.

The first game I played of this type on the Commodore 64 was the much less-well-known Brian Jacks' Superstar Challenge.  If you're anywhere around my age, you'll remember Superstars... it  was a TV show featuring top sportsmen and women of the era competing against each other in a number of sporting disciplines.  You'll probably have three main memories of it... the theme tune, Kevin Keegan falling off his bike and getting gravel rash, and judoka Brian Jacks destroying all opponents.  He was simply awesome.

This would be a strange sight in the Olympics!
Because of this, although perhaps a few years too late, he was immortalised in computer game form.  This game proved to be more interesting that you might have expected though, being more of a cross between Track and Field, the Superstars TV show and Summer Games.  Along with more traditional events such as canoeing and cycling (which make it eligible for inclusion in an Olympic feature!), it featured some unusual and even unique events to tackle, such as squat thrust and the boar shoot.  These proved to be enough to hold your interest, and the control methods were a bit more thoughtful, not relying on pure waggling but incorporating timing and rhythm.  This variation was enough to make Brian Jacks' Superstar Challenge a worthwhile addition to the collection.

Speaking of Brian Jacks, he came to renown as a judo expert, and his sport was represented on the 8-bits by Martech's Uchi Mata.  This was another game I owned, having bought it at a second-hand shop after reading the enthusiastic review in ZZAP! 64.  Now, judo is not like karate or boxing, or any other fighting, really.  You don't punch, and you don't really kick.  Instead, you throw.  You might think that this would be difficult to get across in a computer game, but Uchi Mata handled it surprisingly well.

Early series of Strictly Come Dancing lacked pizzaz.
Incorporating a grip meter and a graphic representation of the players' stances, it took a lot of effort to score points.  You had to really work hard to get the measure of your opponent.  Satisfyingly, counter-moves could be pulled off pretty successfully once you had the hang of the game, meaning that bouts could last for quite some time, although that proved to be just as exhausting as joystick waggling!  The transition didn't carry across well to the Spectrum, but the C64 version was a nice change of pace.

Tennis is now an Olympic sport, for better or worse, and it's been served by video games since the year dot.  Of course, everyone is aware of Pong, and who didn't have some kind of variant console in their homes?  Again, it was Activision to the rescue on the Atari, with their Tennis providing epic battles in households across the land and the world.

Look everyone!  Tim's winning!
There were loads of tennis games on home computers, though.  I wasn't going to play them all, so I concentrated on one that I had strong memories of... Psion's Spectrum classic, Match Point.  As is usually the case with Spectrum games, I played it at a friend's house, and I distinctly remember getting thrashed as I just stood there, swinging the racket wildly.  If you held the 'hit' button down, your player would just constantly swing away.  It looked silly, and it didn't help your game at all!  Once you got the hang of it, though, you could get into some lengthy rallies.  It was fun, but it seemed a bit slower than I remembered when I played it again.

Heading back down the "obscure Olympic sports that you wouldn't expect to play on a computer" road, the next game I played was one that, again, I owned courtesy of the local second-hand shop... Gremlin's Water Polo.

Pah.  There's even an action replay to confirm how rubbish you are.
On the other hand, why shouldn't it be a computer game?  If you can have football, you can have water polo.  They're both team sports where you have to put a ball into a goal, after all.  I quite enjoyed it when I bought it, although playing it now proved a tricky proposition.  I might have accidentally set the computer opposition a bit high, because I was trounced.  No Gold Medal for me!

Now, I know you probably won't believe me here, on any counts, but there was actually a sailing game available.  Well, there were a few as it happens, but the most prominent was Sailing by Activision... and I owned it!  Yes, really.  It was another four quid special from my favourite second-hand shop.  I must have spent so much pocket money at that place!

Shouldn't this game have been released by Ocean?
Part simulation and part racing game, it took a different tack on the racing genre (ho-ho!) and proved to be surprisingly absorbing.  It was difficult to get into, and the lack of variety meant I didn't play it for months, but it made a nice change from racing cars.  I might have liked it more if I had any kind of sea legs...

One of the most popular Olympic events is boxing.  In parallel to that, we've always loved a good scrap on our computers.  I don't think there are any Olympic boxing games, so I've played the one that was always my favourite... Barry McGuigan World Championship Boxing.

'Ave some of that, Ramirez.
Despite the fact that a side on view is quite restrictive for boxing, Barry McGuigan's did an awful lot right.  It gave you the chance to construct a boxer (although options were limited), and then either work your way up from the bottom or start as a contender.  I like taking the hard road, so I always started from the bottom.

You always have a choice of opponents, and once you've picked your fight, you can allocate the amount of time you spend training using various methods.  This determines your abilities in the ring, such as strength and endurance.

And it's a sweet left from Morrison...
I always enjoyed the flow of fights in this game, with a genuine momentum being built when you started to get on top, and the rising volume of the crowd noise (which seems sadly missing on the Spectrum version) added hugely to the atmosphere.  I never did get to be champion, but I always had an excellent time with this game.

One of the more intriguing Olympic events is table tennis.  The players get so pumped up and the games are really intense.  The games can make for some spectacular viewing... you can't quite believe some of the shots those players can pull off!

Table tennis is represented here by Konami's Ping-Pong, a conversion of the obscure arcade game of the same name.  I've played the arcade version before, and it's not a bad little game.  I'd never played a home conversion though, so I played Spectrum and C64 versions.  I have to say, the Commodore version looks and sounds a lot like the arcade version... I was pretty impressed.  As for gameplay, well, I was rubbish at both.  It's not exactly a top-drawer game, but it's a fun way to pass half an hour or so.

There's no body here.  What?
I've been surprised, in recent Games, to find that BMX is included as an Olympic sport.  I think most things can get in nowadays... when will darts be given its rightful place, I wonder?  Still, it gave me the opportunity to play a number of games from my younger days, all in the name of sporting greatness.

A couple of games get a mention here, from opposite ends of the quality spectrum.  One of my favourite budget games was Richard Darling's BMX Simulator.  A variation on the Super Sprint genre, this game gave you a number of BMX tracks to race around, either against a computer opponent or a friend.  The tracks were well-designed, and looked really nice, with ramps and raised bends all being effective obstacles which could help or hinder.  It was well worth the £1.99 asking price.

I'm doing about as well as the Team GB racers here.
Less successful was Richard's brother David Darling's BMX Trials.  Also a budget game, I received it on Christmas Day, the day I got my Commodore 64.  Frankly, it was appalling, not that it stopped him from going on to much bigger things.  It gave you a number of events to complete, such as racing, wheelies, etc.  It just played really badly and wasn't any fun!

"FOUL" is right...
Finally, and more in keeping with the mayhem of Olympic racing, I owned a game called BMX Kidz.  Again, it was a budget game, but this time it saw you racing against a decent number of computer-controlled opponents.  Tracks had a variety of jumps that you could (and had to, in fact) pull stunts off, and there were pick-ups along the way to boost your skillz.  It was pretty entertaining stuff, although a little bit annoying when you lost because you had to do well in the race and do enough stunts or you were out.  Nice title tune, too!

Go! Go! G-G-G-Go!
Of course, multi-event games are more in keeping with the Olympics, and that's how I'll finish this piece.  Hyper Sports was always one of my favourite arcade games.  I'd play it in arcades, taxi offices... wherever I could find it.  I was pretty good at it, too.  So I was very happy that it was released for the home computers.

Oh toss, I've failed.
Naturally, I owned the Commodore 64 version, and a very good version it was, too.  It was missing the pole vault, but that wasn't that big a deal, and worth the trade-off to get it in a single load.  It had the now-legendary version of the Chariots of Fire theme music, and the events were pretty faithful representations of the arcade game, so I was really happy with it, and it gave my Zipstik a real workout.

I expect the American coach might have something to say about this.
Spectrum owners were also well catered for.  Their version was also missing the pole vault, but it was also very playable and great fun.  Having played it myself now for this piece, I reckon it's pretty much on a par with the C64 game, with its skeet shooting having a slightly better feel but the C64 long horse being a better representation.  I think we all did well out of this one.

But the daddy, or daddies of the multi-event games were Epyx' classic Games series.  I'm not kidding, I couldn't believe my eyes the first time I saw Summer Games II.  The animation in the triple jump was astonishing.  The games themselves were stunning, with intelligent control methods linked to very enjoyable events.  There weren't too many mis-steps in these games.

A bit of over-rotation early in the dive.  That'll cost him.
The original Summer Games is something I didn't play for a long time.  Coming after I'd played Summer Games II, it lost some of its "wow" factor.  Nonetheless, it featured a number of very impressive events that were fun to play.  I expect that it blew a lot of minds upon release.  Personal favourites for me were diving, rowing, pole vault and skeet shooting.

Good though it was, it was improved upon to a massive degree for Summer Games II.  Right from the opening triple jump event, you're hooked by the presentation, graphical brilliance and sheer playability.  Being a triple jumper at school, I loved this event, and would play it over and over, attempting to get further and further.  I never got tired of it, even when I'd more or less maxed out the distance.

Good form there.  A good attempt is on the way.
Some of the other events were equally stunning.  The high jump and javelin throw featured the same stunning animation and clever controls, making them a joy to play.  The other events were varied and brilliant, making sure that Summer Games II is a game that has stayed in memories for a long, long time.

I've missed many games out of this, of course.  Epyx released a number of other Games which featured all kinds of varied events.  There's Track and Field and loads of games inspired by it, along with alternative Olympic-style games.  I could have sat here for a week and not finished, if I'd wanted.  You have to draw the line somewhere, and here it is.  Hopefully there are some happy memories for everyone in here... I've played about fifty Olympic events, and had a great time putting it together.