Category Archives: Shoot ‘Em Up

#95: Defender

Format: Coin-Op/Amiga Genre: Shoot ‘Em Up Released: 1980/1994 Developer: Williams/Ratsoft

Sadly, I’ve never played the original Defender arcade machine, although with the current growth of the retro game scene, it’s surely only a matter of time before I come across it at some sort of retro-themed club night. However, I did play the Amiga shareware conversion a helluva lot, so that’s what I’m going to talk about here.

Good old Ratsoft. Whoever you are.

There may well have been more than one shareware version of Defender, but after scouring t’interweb, I’m fairly sure that the one I had was developed by Ratsoft (thanks lemonamiga.com). Having never played the arcade original, I’m not in a position to comment of the quality of the Amiga conversion, but as far as I’m concerned it’s bloody brilliant. Interestingly, according to Retro Gamer and Edge (via Wikipedia), “most official and unofficial ports [of Defender] failed to accurately emulate the arcade’s gameplay”. If that’s the case, I’m obviously in for a real treat when I finally play the original arcade machine, because to my mind the Amiga version was nigh-on perfect.

Ah lasers. Good old lasers.

Unlike many eighties arcade games, Defender has really stood the test of time. The lightning-fast gameplay is  incredibly frenetic and tense, and the controls are amazingly responsive (which is in stark contrast to the woolly controls of one of its contemporaries, Space Invaders). The scrolling and collision detection are both spot on, so  however difficult the gameplay gets (and it gets very difficult indeed), you can never blame the game for an unfair death.

The trick is to shoot the alien without hitting the human - harder than it looks.

Speaking of difficulty, this has to be one of the hardest but most rewarding games out there. It’s difficult because the secret to success is aiming and shooting at enemies on the main screen while simultaneously keeping one eye on the top radar screen – a very difficult task unless you happen to have eyes that swivel independently of each other. Still, keeping an eye (or at least part of an eye) on the radar is the only way you’ll have a chance of avoiding any aliens lurking off-screen once your ship gets up to full speed, unless you have Tron-like reflexes. Likewise, the radar screen helps you to find and rush to the aid of humans who are being abducted, and one of the most rewarding (and challenging) aspects of the game is shooting a fleeing alien out of mid-air (being careful to avoid hitting its human cargo), then deftly catching the falling human and returning him/her to terra firma.

Whoever's playing is in a spot of trouble here - if the screen fills up this much, it's almost a guaranteed Game Over.

More often than not, your little rescue mission ends with you missing the alien entirely and destroying the innocent human instead, or shooting the alien but failing to catch the human before they plummet to their death, which is why it’s so damn satisfying when you’re successful. It’s a brilliant mechanic that’s endlessly entertaining, and despite my general awfulness at this game, it was enough of a carrot to keep me playing and replaying for hours at a time.

The fantastic Guardian - shame so few people got to play it.

Lastly, I have to mention an excellent Defender spin-off called Guardian, which was one of the very few games that was exclusive to the Amiga 1200 and the ill-fated CD32. Guardian did an absolutely amazing job of replicating the mechanics of Defender in 3D, and it’s just a shame that it was released so late in the Amiga’s lifespan (it was rated as the third best game on the Amiga in the penultimate issue of Amiga Power in 1996). The makers, Acid Software, were also behind the fantastic Super Skidmarks, but as far as I can gather, they were sucked up by some kind of black hole that emanated from Commodore’s HQ at around the time the Amiga imploded, and no-one’s heard of them since. Shame.

Anyway, here’s a clip of Defender in action – this is from the coin-op, but it’s pretty much identical to the Amiga version (make sure to have the sound turned up to fully appreciate the bombastic SFX).

Lewis

(Screenshots from http://www.lemonamiga.com)

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Filed under 1980, 1994, Amiga, Coin-Op, Ratsoft, Shoot 'Em Up, Williams

#89: Alien Breed

Format: Amiga Genre: Shoot ‘Em Up Released: 1991 Developer: Team 17

Oh, the hours I used to spend playing this bloody game. Not only was Alien Breed one of the best games on the Amiga, it was also one of the hardest – not least because of its incredible stinginess when it came to handing out health and ammo. God knows how I had the patience to keep playing, but I just couldn’t put it down.

Actually, when I come to think of it, the main reason this game was so damn hard was the control system. Because the Amiga only had a one-button joystick, you had to move ever so slightly in the direction you wanted to shoot before pressing fire, meaning that if an alien was sneaking up behind you, in the process of turning round to shoot it you’d more often than not end up walking into it instead. Of course, on modern consoles this problem could easily be solved by just assigning one thumbstick to movement and one thumbstick to directional fire, but obviously this wasn’t an option at the time (and I seem to remember The Chaos Engine suffered a similar problem).

Still, ropey controls aside, this was a brilliant game, and a brilliant-looking one too – the level design really managed to capture the feel of the Alien films the game was so shamelessly ripping off, and it’s still one of the best-looking Amiga games out there. Although I always wondered about the character design – why did the protagonist have an orange head? Did Earth’s government send one of the Incredible Crash Test Dummies to defeat the alien menace?

My favourite bit was when you were tasked with activating the level’s self-destruct system (obviously in homage to the films:  “Mother! Turn the cooling unit back on! Mother!…You BITCH!” (Alien), “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.” (Aliens), and so on and so forth (love those lines)). Suddenly the clock in the top left corner would start ticking down and you’d be left to frantically steer your crash test dummy in the direction of the (incredibly far away) elevator, cursing every godforsaken alien that leapt out in front of you and panicking as your already slim supply of bullets ran out. Classic Amiga gaming.

However, I can’t write about Alien Breed without mentioning Team17’s (ridiculous) long-running feud with Amiga Power. Like many Amiga owners, I was a big fan of Team 17, and the company turned out some absolutely classic Amiga games (the Alien Breed series, Arcade Pool, Project X, Worms, etc.), but any time that Amiga Power gave one of their games a mark below 90%, they’d throw their toys out of the pram. It was ridiculous. Sure, they made some great games, but they also made some highly questionable rubbish – F17 Challenge springs to mind – yet for some reason they seemed to think that everything they touched turned to pure gold, and they even tried to sue AP for giving one of their games (Kingpin) a low mark. You can read Amiga Power‘s account of the Team 17 ‘vendetta’ here, and here is a link to an astonishingly libellous article in the French magazine Amiga Concept, which basically claims that AP killed the Amiga by giving low marks to Team 17 games.

Whining childish hatemongers.

For me though, Alien Breed (along with its many sequels) was Team 17’s finest hour, and I’m very intrigued by Alien Breed Evolution, the Alien Breed remake (of sorts) that recently appeared on Xbox Live Arcade. Sadly, according to the Gamespot review, the new game seems to do a good job of capturing the negative aspects of the original with its ‘repetitive and dated gameplay’, ‘occasionally unwieldy controls’ and ‘instantly forgettable’ story (although at least they’ve made it a little easier this time around, so hopefully players will be less inclined to gnaw their own limbs off in frustration). Reading this review made me think that perhaps I’m seeing the old Alien Breed through rose-tinted spectacles, that perhaps the mist of nostalgia has obscured the frustrations and limitations of Team 17’s magnum opus. Perhaps, as the review claims, the original AB is an example of ‘a classic game that wouldn’t hold up too well if you were to go back and play it today’.

Perhaps. But whatever the reality, I still have fond memories of this rough-edged Amiga classic, even if Team 17 tarnished their crown somewhat through their litigious relationship with AP.

And what’s wrong with being ‘repetitive and dated’ anyway?

Amazingly, the incredibly badly drawn intro took up an entire disk. Still, the music was good, even if the graphics looked like something from Tony Hart’s Gallery:

"Next we have something from Team 17. I really like the bold use of black and white here. Good effort!"

Lewis

(Screenshots from lemonamiga.com)

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Filed under 1991, Amiga, Shoot 'Em Up, Team17

#28: 1942

Format: Coin-Op Genre: Shoot ‘Em Up Released: 1984 Developer: Capcom

Every time we went to holiday parks or the seaside when I was a kid, I would beg to be taken to the arcade. I think at first my mum thought I had a gambling problem, but in actual fact I didn’t pay the slightest bit of attention to the fruit machines  – I only had eyes for all those wonderful arcade games.

Although having said that I’ve always quite liked those machines with the sliding racks of 10 pence pieces – does that still count as gambling?

1942-arcade-cabinet

Anyway, going to the arcade was a real treat when I was young. There was a huge gap between the quality of games in the arcade and the quality of games for home systems, so seeing the latest coin-ops was like taking a glimpse into the future. It’s completely different now of course – if anything, home systems are actually slightly ahead of most arcade machines, and most arcades are completely dominated by the same old shooting and driving games. Add to that the fact that the cost of console games has come down while the cost of arcade credits has gone up (or at least stayed the same), and there suddenly seems to be little point in visiting the arcade anymore.

Still, back in the eighties it was all different, because a trip to the arcade meant you could play something mind-bogglingly amazing… like Out Run, Double Dragon, Shinobi, Chase HQ or 1942.

1942_screenshot

I always made a beeline straight for the 1942 cabinet whenever I went into an arcade. The other games I mentioned are all excellent in their own right, but for some reason I was totally hooked on this shoot ’em up.

I don’t even know what it is that I like about it so much – maybe it’s the simplicity, or maybe it’s the well-balanced gameplay. It’s a hard game, but it’s never unfair, so every time you die you know you could do better next time if you just moved that little bit quicker, or tapped the loop-the-loop (evade) button a tiny bit faster. The risk/reward ratio is just right as well – diving for the power ups is always worth it, even if it might end in a fiery death (and the loss of a 20p credit).

1942_screenshot-2

Having said that, it looks incredibly dated now. The graphics could be generously described as ‘dull’… I mean, just look at it – you spend most of the game staring at what looks like stippled blue wallpaper flecked with bits of green snot. Also, there’s hardly any variation in the enemies  – some planes are red instead of green (whoo) and sometimes a slightly bigger plane turns up (although these planes are usually green as well). Understandably, the gameplay gets pretty repetitive quite quickly. Also, the music was pretty damn awful, even by the standards of the time (just listen to the video below to see what I mean).

1942_screenshot-3

I haven’t played the original in years, but I found a remake (1942: Joint Strike) on Xbox Live Arcade that looked promising. It has the same repetitive gamplay but it’s still somehow compelling: I think this game – in all its forms – must generate some kind of Pavlovian response deep in the cerebellum that keeps your trigger finger twitching long after your conscious brain has entirely disengaged.

1942 – a flawed classic. But I’d still happily bypass all the Time Crisis and House of the Dead cabinets to play on it if I saw it in an arcade now. Especially if it still cost 20p.

Lewis

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Filed under 1984, Capcom, Coin-Op, Shoot 'Em Up

#18: U.N. Squadron

Format: Super NES Genre: Shoot ‘Em Up Released: 1991 Developer: Capcom

Back in the day, I used to be a massive fan of shoot ’em ups (or ‘shmups’ as people are trendily abbreviating them nowadays). I don’t play them so much anymore, but there’s still something satisfying about a good shooter – the frantic button hammering, the screen-filling bosses, the feeling of constantly being no more than a gnat’s hair away from explodey death… yeah, there really is nothing like a good old shoot ’em up.

un squadron box

Having said that, I think you do need a special kind of gaming autism to really enjoy them: the hallmark of the genre is a level of difficulty that cultivates armchair-gnawing, joypad-snapping frustration in most gamers, but shmup players have developed the Zen-like patience/sheer bloody-mindedness to not only persevere with but enjoy these most unforgiving of games. In this respect, U.N. Squadron was a little more lenient than its peers, featuring – horror of horrors – an energy bar. Energy bars are like kryptonite to hardcore shoot ’em up players, who believe that they detract from the intensity of the shoot ’em up experience. For sane people though, they offer the opportunity to get past the end of the first level without retrying several hundred times.

un squadron first boss

Despite the energy bar, U.N. Squadron was by no means easy, although it was a lot more forgiving than some of its contemporaries, such as Gradius III. It also had the added bonus of featuring various paths through the game, something that we take for granted now but which at the time was fairly rare. This meant that it was rare to get stuck on one level, and the sheer variety of planes and weapon upgrades was a compelling reason to keep playing (and replaying).

un squadron chopper

Surprisingly, U.N. Squadron had a plot. I say ‘surprisingly’, because I’ve just found out that it’s based on an old manga called ‘Area 88’ – you can read all about it here. I’m always surprised when games like this have a plot – it seems so utterly unnecessary and ridiculous, like the ongoing plot of Tekken. I mean, in what possible situation would a single plane go up against an entire air force? I’m not sure where the U.N. come into it either – I presume that in this scenario the G8 have withdrawn funding, so the U.N. can only afford to send one plane at a time on peacekeeping missions.

un squadron stealth

Looking back at this game, it’s clear just how much gaming has moved on in the last twenty years, and I even remember thinking at the time that shoot ’em ups were ‘a bit old-fashioned’. The entire genre is based around repetitiveness, and any attempt at complexity rarely extends beyond choosing which special weapons to equip. Having said that, it’s hard to beat shmups for a pure adrenaline rush, and now that I have less and less time to play games, a quick five-minute blast on a traditional side scroller like this has more and more appeal. U.N. Squadron was certainly one of the better genre efforts, and it’s surely overdue for a revival.

UN Squadron clouds

Shoot ’em ups are a sort of prehistoric gaming genre that has somehow survived into the 21st century – like the Coelacanth, they keep being declared extinct, and then a thriving colony of them pops up somewhere unexpected. After all, a healthy clutch of shooters was recently spotted on PS2, and reports of new shmups being released on Dreamcast persisted long after the console’s ‘demise’. Here’s hoping that  U.N. Squadron will throw off its extinct status and resurface on Xbox Live Arcade sometime soon.

Lewis

(Screenshots from http://www.mobygames.com)

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Filed under 1991, Capcom, Shoot 'Em Up, Super NES