Friday, 30 January 2015

Computer Shmups #3

Xenon (1988)
By: The Bitmap Brothers Genre: Shooting Players: 1 Difficulty: Hard
Featured Version: Atari ST First Day Score: 62,310
Also Available For: Amiga, PC, Commodore 64, MSX, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum
Download For: Wii Virtual Console


The numerous home computers of the 80’s were never really known for the quality or quantity of their shmups but one that seemed to get a lot of press time was Xenon, the first game by legends-in-the-making, the Bitmap Brothers. It’s a vertical-scroller but one that's rather unlike most other efforts of the time. You play the part of Darrian, a Federation fighter pilot who intercepts a distress call from Captain Xod whose fleet has come under heavy attack by the wretched Xenites, a hostile race who had inundated the Federation almost overnight. As the closest ship to the fleet's position, Darrian is compelled to respond (though hardly enthusiastic about it) and heads for their last location which is the other side of four sectors crawling with pesky Xenite filth.

The saucer encounters some terrifying labybird enemies...
It's not this back-story that makes Xenon stand out though. That's down to your unique vessel. Each of these sectors that makes up the journey from home to the fleet is divided into four zones and at certain points during them you have the option of switching back and forth between two different types of craft - a ground dwelling 'saucer' craft and a airborne jet fighter. You start the game as the saucer which can move freely in eight directions, with the screen only scrolling if/when you move up it. With a press of the space bar, however, you can switch to the fighter which moves up the screen automatically. Both craft are initially armed with pea-shooter guns but these can of course be upgraded by collecting the lettered icons that dot the landscape.

The second stage boss, and perhaps the biggest of all...
These usually appear in the flaming wreckage of the enemy craft and guns and include forward lasers, side lasers, homing missiles (lasts for 15 shots), fuel (to top up your limited supply), armour (temporary invincibility), speed-ups, and 'balls' which take two forms. One type are fixed to the wings of your jet fighter, the other floats around following your ship, and both offer additional fire-power. Perhaps the most helpful power-up, however, is one that extends the range of your guns which to start with only each about half-way up the screen. Annoyingly, your fuel supply is shared by both craft but it's enemy fire that reduces it rather than simply moving. Even more annoyingly though, if you actually make contact with an enemy your craft will explode immediately.

The lovely pink sector three...
As you might guess given the dual-functionality of your craft, the enemies consist of ground-based and airborne varieties. Both kinds include groups of small craft with names like Ladybirds, Eyes, Kites, Spinners, and several others, and there are also many gun turrets which can either be on the ground or atop buildings, so even these necessitate frequent switching between saucer and fighter. You'll definitely spend more time as the fighter though, as the second and fourth stages feature no surface for the saucer to trundle around on. All four stages feature bosses too, known as Sentinels, which appear at the mid-point and end of each stage, and each of them has a weak point that must be pummelled before they bite the dust. If you last that long!

Fooom! A couple of gun emplacements light up the sky...
Indeed, for as would come to be a defining feature of Bitmap Brothers games, Xenon is very tough going. The fighter craft in particular is a fairly large vessel and feels larger owing to the unforgiving collision-detection and, as with many such games, it's also fairly short, lasting less than 25 minutes for learned players. The graphics are decent enough while it lasts though, with everything looking crisp and well-defined. Most of the sprites are small and some are basic in design but it's a very distinctive looking game, especially the first and third stages with their grid-based landscapes and metallic structures to be steered around or, more probably, flown over. The music is pretty good too but it tends to get drowned out somewhat by the rather loud shooting effects.

Not many places to hide here, with such a wide craft...
All the usual stuff is good enough but the defining feature of Xenon really, is the saucer/fighter combo, and I'm not sure it works as well as it could've. Aside from the stage one and three bosses you're not likely to spend more than a couple of minutes as the saucer through the entire game and the few seconds here and there when you do need to switch just feel bolted on to me. Surely some dedicated sections of the stages could have been conjured up to make both craft seem vital to your mission's success? Maybe even a maze-like section that you can't fly over en route to the boss or something like that? Oh well, it certainly doesn't make the game worse, it just seems like a bit of a waste, and unsurprisingly the idea was abandoned for the sequel.

Here's the sector three boss. He's a pain in the arse...
As it stands, Xenon is still a game ST and Amiga owners were proud to have on their favourite system, but I'm still not sure how enjoyable it is to actually play, mainly due to the high difficulty. It often seems impossible to avoid all the bullets, with success literally being a case of remembering where near enough every enemy in the game is and being correctly positioned, often with the necessary power-up as well, to destroy them the second they loom into view, and even then you may have to contend with the slightly sticky controls. Your craft even seems to change all by itself now and then which can be mighty inconvenient too! Niggles aside though, it's not a bad game and was clearly a landmark release for the micros, but that difficulty will put a lot of players off.

RKS Score: 6/10
 

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Splendid 3DO Music #1

Star Fighter (1995)

As much as us retro gamers loved and continue to love chiptunes, it wasn't until CD-based games started appearing that we had the first 'proper' soundtracks composed by real instruments or featuring samples, voices, or anything else the composers cared to add - the limits, in other words, were now non-existent. One of the earliest examples of this kind of soundtrack that I really liked was found in Fednet's stonking 3D shmup, Star Fighter. Composed by John Avery, it consists of nine techno/trance tracks (I've never been great at differentiating the many sub-genres of 'electronic music') which the game cycles through as you play (and you can jiggle the order around as you please). All of them are superb but I think my favourite is this one...

(full Star Fighter review here)



Special Note: I didn't record this great tune myself, I'm just an admirer, so all credit to the splendid Mr. Avery, as well as my thanks for making such a great soundtrack to start with!
 

Monday, 26 January 2015

Bat 'n' Ball Games #10

Krakout (1987)
By: Gremlin Graphics  Genre: Bat 'n' Ball Players: 1  Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: ZX Spectrum  First Day Score: 9,150 (default settings)
Also Available For: Commodore 64, MSX, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro


Welcome to the ultimate challenge! Bold words indeed from the inlay of this 80's brick breaker for the home micros which, like many other such games at the time, was inspired by Arkanoid. In a concerted effort to differentiate their game from the Taito classic, Gremlin have rotated the action ninety degrees which means the ball (mainly) travels left and right rather than up and down, but apart from that things are very familiar here - simply clear each of the stages of the bricks contained therein to move on to the next. A big but not immediately noticeable difference here, however, is that unlike Arkanoid with its thirty-three stages, Krakout asks you to clear a whopping one hundred stages! Luckily a vast majority of these contain far fewer actual bricks though, so they shouldn't take as long to clear - in theory.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Top Five Films For 2015

Despite my long-standing love of movies, I've never really been the biggest cinema-goer. I probably go less than ten times in a given year and even then it's usually at the behest of my lovely wife, but this year may be a bit different. For a while now I've been noticing more and more potentially-awesome films that are due for release at some point this year and it's gotten to the point where I've found it necessary to document them in case I forget any! Of those I've discovered so far in the 'Ultimate Movie Year', however, I think the five I'm most looking forward to are these:

5. Furious 7 (April)

Many mock the Fast and Furious series for its remarkable longevity but they've been making more and more money at the box office and some could argue that they are getting better and better as they go too. This seventh instalment was announced long ago – to such an extent, in fact, that a teaser was found in the closing credits of the sixth film! As brief as it was, it made it clear what direction the film would take. It's set mostly in Tokyo around the time of poor old Han's explodey death in what we now know was not an accident. Rather than just a random collision while racing recklessly away from DK, it seems the whole thing was orchestrated by Ian Shaw (Jason Statham), brother of the sixth film's protagonist, Owen, who's gunning for revenge on the whole team. Dom and the guys (including Paul Walker in his last film appearance) don't take anyone's shit lying down though, so I'm sure they'll be ready, and from what I can gather they may have the help of Tokyo Drift's Sean Boswell too. I'm sure I'd enjoy this anyway considering how consistently-entertaining the series is but I especially can't wait to see the team locking horns with Jason Statham! (see the trailer here)

Thursday, 22 January 2015

SNES Platform Games #5

Magical Pop'n (1995)
By: Polestar / Pack-in-Video Genre: Platform Players: 1 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: Nintendo SNES
Also Available For: Nothing


Cute platformers have always been among my favourite types of game so I'm always very pleased to find another one, and this is one I knew little of until recently. It was released towards the end of the Super Famicom's life, only in Japan, and stars a young girl known as 'Princess'. Surprisingly, she actually is a princess, and apparently a rather 'energetic' one too, and her quest is a seemingly simple-yet-arduous one - all she needs to do is retrieve 'The Magic Gem' from the ghastly Demon King who has snatched it, intending to harness its incredible power and bring an end to the era of peace enjoyed by the happy people of To'ahl. The trouble is, it and he lie six long stages away. After leaping out of a high castle window in pursuit of the (probably) self-proclaimed King (and apparently being none the worse from her fall), Princess sets out after him, but her progress is unsurprisingly slowed by the many monsters and idiotic creatures that stand in her way.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Indie Games News/Previews #1

Drift Stage by Super Systems Softworks (2015) - PC

A lot of indie games seem to catch my eye these days. So much so, in fact, that I have decided to start posting previews of the ones I'm most looking forward to here. It'll probably take me lord knows how long to get around to actually reviewing them after all! The latest example is this forthcoming release from Super Systems Softworks. It's a Kickstarter funded arcade-style racing game which, as you may have already guessed, is based on that crazy drift racing tomfoolery our Japanese friends are so keen on. For the moment there's just an alpha demo to download which offers a one-player time-trial burn around a city circuit (complete with ghost cars) but the finished game promises much more including Arcade, Career, Multiplayer, and Workshop modes while the Arcade mode has Single Race, Time Trial, Infinite Drift, and Daily Drift options as well.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Film Review #74

The Imitation Game (2014)
Director: Morten Tyldum Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Alex Lawther

Certificate: 12A Running Time: 114 Minutes

Tagline: "The true enigma was the man who cracked the code."


War is a nasty business, I don’t think there are too many people that would dispute that, and few were quite as ghastly as World War II. The fear, the blood, the horror of battle are hard to imagine for oafs like me, but as this new British release helmed by Norwegian, Morten Tyldum, demonstrates, life wasn't necessarily filled with happy frolics for most of the chaps and lasses back in old Blighty either. They were getting the crap bombed out of them by those pesky Jerries and most of the ships attempting to leave or approach British ports ended up at the mercy of U-Boats so supplies were running low as well. The key to it all was Enigma, the machine used by the Germans for enciphering and deciphering the many messages they used for passing on orders, coordinating their troops and ships, and for pretty much all other communication as well. What the Allies needed was someone smart enough to break it.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Top Five NES Platform Games

In the early days of Red Parsley I was excitedly rustling up these lists left right and centre with the intention of making revised lists after a few years once I had played more games of the appropriate type. Sensible enough, I thought, as the lists provoke discussion and also motivate me to find and play more games I've not found time for before. This particular list, however, is one I've long been a little wary of. The NES is known as a platforming powerhouse (amongst other things) after all.

This is mainly thanks to a certain moustached plumber, of course, but, as I've found while 'researching' this list, he doesn't really have a huge amount of competition. I expected to be inundated with dozens of quality examples; I thought it would be really tough to narrow the list down to five; but it hasn't actually been very tough at all. It's true that I tend to disregard certain titles - Metroid and the Castlevania games, for example, which I class more as 'arcade adventures' than platformers, and stuff like Contra are more run 'n' gunners, as are the Mega Man games, some might say, but I'm afraid I found them far too annoying to include anyway.

I played numerous other examples, too, and wasn't overly enamoured by many of them, quite honestly, but I did eventually find five examples I liked and settled on the list below. Maybe there are still some hidden gems out there, though, lying in dark, dusty corners known only to the handful of fans that have stumbled upon them, so I'm still sticking to that disclaimer for the time being!

Games-Related Top Fives Disclaimer: I've traditionally stuck to the games I know and love so far, and these game-related top fives reflect that. One of the purposes of this blog is diversify my gaming experiences, to play games I haven't played before, so I will do new game-related top fives in a few years to see how different they are!

5. Kid Icarus (1986)

The oldest of the games on the list and long known as an NES classic, Kid Icarus is a game I first played a few years ago during an 'Exploring' post here at RP. Revisiting it for this post confirms my opinion of it too - it's good but very tough! It consists of three worlds known as Underworld, Surface World, and Sky World, each of which is divided into three side-viewed stages, some of which scroll vertically and others horizontally. It's definitely not among the flashiest games on the system but the graphics are quite appealing, the music is great (if a tad repetitive), and the action is very addictive. It's renowned as a highly frustrating game and it is rather unforgiving but it's also one of those games where the second you die you're immediately convinced you can do better next time, and it's often the case too. I'm not sure it's the kind of game I'll ever be able to breeze through in an hour but it is the kind that I'll keep trying.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Maze Games #12

Gauntlet 2 (1986)
By: Atari Genre: Maze / Run 'n' Gun Players: 1-4 Difficulty: Easy-Medium
Featured Version: Arcade First Day Score: 28,627 (starting with 2000 health)
Also Available For: NES, Game Boy, Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum


The immense success of Gauntlet pretty much guaranteed that a sequel would soon be on the way; the only question really was what direction Atari would take with it. It turned out they took the safer option - more of the same - but that's mighty welcome when the 'same' is as rip-snortingly spiffy as Gauntlet! There is again no back-story that I can determine so we are simply presented with a choice of the same four brave, fearsome, yet varied characters - Warrior, Valkyrie, Wizard, and Elf - and sent forth into a series of very mazey dungeons to vanquish as many terrifying foes as possible. Multiple players can choose the same character this time (duplicates are coloured differently) and there are again a hundred stages in total which appear in a random order from the sixth onwards, but for the most part they will just seem like more stages from the first game.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Xbox: The Time To Collect Is Now...

Remarkably (and slightly worryingly) it's already been a full year since I received my stonking green Xbox for Christmas. In that time my collection of games has grown at at faster rate than it has for any of my previous consoles, and there's a very good reason for that. It's a rather splendid console for one thing, but it also seems that I became an owner of Microsoft's tank-like system at precisely the right time...

Indeed, for over the past year I've become rather startled at just how cheap games are for this bulky system. All of my purchases are second-hand, naturally, but even so, most of them have cost no more than a Speccy budget game, and this is something I've found quite amazing. I know they're not in the biggest demand now but come on... some cost mere pennies! Thanks to this surprisingly helpful pricing policy, I now own almost 60 games. Some were bought simply because they were cheap - I'm certainly not expecting to be blown away by all of them, but surely it's worth these paltry sums just to play them (and cover them here, obviously)?

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Star Trek #9

Voyager Favourite Episodes - Season Two

Star Trek fans are a notoriously picky bunch and the reaction to Voyagers debut season was not universally glowing. It was unusual in that it featured only sixteen episodes as opposed to to the usual twenty-six and many weren't happy with the quality of the episodes either. The crew seemed like a pretty decent bunch, all things considered, but not all of them were immediately likeable, and the stories weren't really prime Trek material either. This second season was definitely back to normal as far as the number of episodes was concerned but did it do any more to sway opinion of the new show? Here's hoping!

We do at the very least get a decent variety of stories this season. In addition to the episodes highlighted below, we see Nog again, albeit as an idiotic Kazon child, the Doctor thinks he is real and everyone else is a hologram, Kes gets all horny (and gross), Harry makes it home but not with Voyager, Chakotay meets some Indians, the ship's interior gets rearranged, Janeway is mistaken for the daughter of some old dude, Paris and Janeway turn into lizards and get it on, the superbly-creepy Suder comes to prominence, B'Elanna ties to outsmart an intelligent WMD, some Q bunghole turns up, Tuvok has to babysit some irritating kiddies, Harry dies (although luckily there's a spare), Janeway and Chakotay fall in love (kind of) on a windy planet they're quarantined on, and of course, those pesky Kazon oafs turn up a few more times! These are the episodes that stuck with me the most though:

The 37's (Episode 1)

This season opener begins as many previous episodes have - with the discovery of a distress signal. This time, however, it's a rather older signal than usual, as our Captain discovers when she quickly finds the source - a 1930's aircraft from earth. It turns out the planet on which it's located is actually home to a sizeable population of humans, all descendants of a small group abducted from earth in 1937 and brought across the galaxy to work as slaves. Of course, the ever-resourceful Voyager crew had already found and revived some of these "37's" who were in stasis and they, along with their descendants, then give Janeway a tough decision to make by offering to allow any of the crew to join their settlement rather than face the 70-odd year journey back to Earth. Does she allow as many to remain behind as want to, potentially leaving herself with an insufficient crew, or does she make them stay aboard regardless? Hmmmm. I do enjoy these 'humans from the past' episodes that Trek throws up now and then, though, and this one does pose an interesting question or two. Nothing special but very enjoyable anyway.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Currently Playing...

Speed Devils a.k.a. Speed Busters (1999)
By: Ubisoft Genre: Racing Players: 1-2 Difficulty: Easy-Medium
Featured Version: Sega Dreamcast
Also Available For: PC (variation)


The Dreamcast is famous for many things including some fantastic driving games, but Speed Devils is not really one of these. It was first released as a PC game known as Speed Busters a year earlier but this DC version was intended to be a launch title here in the U.K. As would turn out to be that case for an alarming amount of DC games, it was delayed, but it did surface a month or two later to some rather encouraging reviews.

That was enough for me in my old irresponsible credit card days so I snapped it up and it soon became a favourite. When I recently dug out all my DC stuff after a frankly baffling and unexplainable period of dormancy, I was therefore not very surprised to find myself seeking it out before any other game. I've played a lot of racing games since I last powered this one up though, and mostly on more powerful systems too, so I was also interested to find if it still held as much appeal as once it did.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Favourite Speccy Loading Screens - Part 1

Back in the days of cassette-based gaming, us ZX Spectrum owners, along with our Amstrad CPC and Commodore 64 owning brethren (amongst others), were periodically forced to endure mocking jibes and stinging repartee from conceited owners of the various disc/cartridge-based systems concerning the 3-5 minutes it took to load our games (you know, as opposed to the 30+ minutes it takes to install/patch/update a game before you can play it on a modern system nowadays).

The one comfort we took during this period came via the often-fab 'loading screens' that most developers included to whet our appetites. I've now amassed a fairly sizeable gallery of my favourite examples and am happy to present them before you now, for your (possible) viewing pleasure! Behold, the fifty loading screens that make up the first of what will probably end up being about five or six posts:


Friday, 2 January 2015

Random Game I've Never Heard Of #12

Skooter (1987)
By: Pieket Weeserik / Byte Busters Genre: Puzzle Players: 1 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: MSX
Also Available For: Nothing


Since the MSX series wasn't very well known here in the UK, looking through its back catalogue now proves very interesting. Many well known game series' were born here but there were also some rather more obscure titles. Take Skooter, for example, which I'm pretty sure originates from Holland - a country where the MSX was popular. It's a single-screen puzzle game starring a highly appealing white robot of some sort, and his job is seemingly to collect all four items from each of the sixteen stages, or 'sheets', while avoiding the four brick-like robotic enemies that also inhabit them. They trundle around fairly slowly and predictably and they're more of an inconvenience really - the main challenge is usually getting to the items. The publisher actually describes it as a "game of jigsaw puzzle" (translated) and that's not very far at all from the truth.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Games of the Year - 2014

Well, after revisiting many of my old reviews, and indeed getting the urge to play many of the games again too (I don't often get the time to play games simply for pleasure these days), we're finally up to date! The biggest difference with this list is the presence of several indie PC games - a type of game I've increasingly become a fan of since delving into that dauntingly-large world - but this year also featured some landmark arcade titles and I finally reviewed my very favourite game of all time too. Behold, the ten best games I've played (and reviewed) this year are:

10. Oids by FTL Games (1987) - Atari ST

For many years, every time the subject of 'gravity games' comes up I've heard three names - Gravitar, Thrust, and Oids. The latter is one that I never played until this review but it's turned out to be the best of them all - as well as loads of stages featuring all the usual stuff but it even has a level editor too! (full review here)