Category Archives: 1991

#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

#59: Battletoads

Format: NES Genre: Fighting/Platform Released: 1991 Developer: Rare

Battletoads was one of my favourite games on the NES, second only to Super Mario Bros. 3, although I have to admit my recollections of how it actually played are hazy at best.

I read through a few internet reviews before I started writing this post, and almost all of them mentioned how incredibly difficult Battletoads was – something that I don’t remember at all. That either means I’m an amazingly skilled gamer or my memory isn’t up to much –  I’m guessing it’s the latter. Most reviewers bewailed the teeth-grinding difficulty of the hover bike bit on level three, and after watching a clip of the level on YouTube (see below), painful memories of thrown joypads and screamed curse words gradually began to float towards the murky surface of my brain pool. Obviously Battletoads caused so much trauma to my poor teenaged brain that the delicate organ has suppressed all memories associated with it.

Punching out the robots let you use their legs as a weapon.

There's nothing more satisfying than beating up cartoon enemies with bits of other cartoon enemies.

Battletoads was obviously a thinly veiled attempt to cash in on the mania surrounding the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at the time, and I seem to remember a whole crop of these rip-offs emerging during the nineties (anyone remember Street Sharks?). I never really ‘got’ the Turtles though – even as a ten-year-old I thought they were one of the stupidest ideas I’d ever seen, and my position hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. Having said that, the Turtles video games were generally pretty good (my favourite was the original Game Boy one) – but Battletoads was in a league of its own.

"It's too orangey for crows." Not sure how the Kia Ora crows ended up in Battletoads.

"It's too orangey for crows." There was no explanation as to why the Kia Ora crows made an appearance, nor what they had against anthropomorphic toads.

One of Battletoads‘ best features was its sense of humour – something that its po-faced beat ’em up cousin Double Dragon lacked. All the cartoon violence staples were there – the character’s foot turned into a giant comedy boot to give enemies a final kick off the screen, and some enemies could be pounded into the ground, leaving only their heads showing. It was like watching Tom & Jerry but with ‘attitood’.

Comedy-violence fans rejoice! The first appearance of the Big Boot.

These comedy-violence tropes were just one example of the imagination that really set this game apart, but the variety of gameplay styles was another. The second level saw the gameplay change completely as you abseiled down some sort of multicoloured mine shaft, and then of course it all changed again on the third level with the introduction of the infamous hover bikes. My favourite bit was probably the end of level one, which saw you face off against a giant robot boss, but from the robot’s point of view – a fantastic idea that I don’t think has been used since (please correct me if I’m wrong). Skip to the end of the video below to see what I mean.

Oh, and did I mention that Battletoads looked utterly amazing at a time when most 8-bit games made do with monochromatic backgrounds and barely functional animation? No? Well consider it mentioned.

The insanely hard hover bike bit on level three – one mistake and you were sent back to the beginning.

Lewis

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Filed under 1991, Fighting, NES, Platform, Rare

#25: Knights of the Sky

Format: Amiga Genre: Flight Simulator Released: 1991 Developer: MicroProse

I was playing a demo of Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. the other day. The graphics were superb – the representation of Rio de Janeiro was almost photo-realistic – but the game itself was deathly dull. Like pretty much all modern flight sims, it basically amounts to lining up your sights over some plane or tank that’s so far away you can’t actually see it, waiting for a lock on, then pressing the fire button. *Yawn*

Knights_of_the_Sky_Cover

Unfortunately, it seems that as real-life planes rely more and more on flight computers to navigate and select targets, the computer games based on them become less and less enjoyable. Perhaps by the time we reach Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. 10 you won’t even need to do anything – you could just step outside for a cigarette and let the game play itself.

Thank heavens then for Knights of the Sky, a blesséd antidote to all this modern fly-by-wire, fire-and-forget, head-up-display, ensure-contents-are-piping-hot nonsense. Here’s a simulation where top speeds rarely climb into triple figures, where fire and forget equates to lobbing a hand grenade out of the cockpit and hoping for the best, and where your head-up display mostly consists of a petrol gauge and a compass. Welcome to World War 1.

knights_of_the_sky_plane_selection

The great thing about Knights of the Sky was that you felt completely vulnerable throughout every mission – even just a few direct hits with a machine gun could send you spiralling to a fiery death, which led to some tense dogfights. Pretty much every mission I attempted would end with me coaxing a critically damaged plane back to my home base after a few too many close encounters with the enemy. The wings would be practically falling off, the petrol gauge would be virtually on empty, and I’d be wrestling with the joystick to just keep the plane going in a straight line… Most of the time I didn’t make it, but on the rare occasions where I somehow managed to land my charred mass of wood and canvas back on friendly soil, I’d be practically dancing round the room in excitement. And, to my knowledge, there are very few flight sims that can inspire dancing.

knights_of_the_sky_balloon

By far the best aspect of this game was the two player mode. There were surprisingly few Amiga games that you could play over a link cable, but these games were among my favourites, and most of them are (or will be) on this list (I’ve already covered one of them – Stunt Car Racer).

Knights of the Sky just came alive in two player mode. As much fun as it was having my plane shot to pieces by nameless Germans, it couldn’t even come close to the sheer thrill of having my plane shot to pieces by my Amiga-500-owning mate who lived round the corner. As I said earlier, dogfights were tense in Knights of the Sky, but they were a good deal tenser when playing against a friend, especially if he unplugged your joystick in the middle of a loop-the-loop (thankfully, the computerised Germans never learned that little trick).

knights_of_the_sky_outside_plane

Actually shooting down your opponent’s plane was surprisingly hard – the view from your cockpit was incredibly restrictive (most of your view was taken up by instruments and a bloody great big wing in front), so it was really difficult to keep the other plane within your sights. Also, because the planes were so slow, actually turning round to try and get on the tail of your opponent was a constant struggle. And any slightly more advanced manoeuvres were a risky business – the planes could only fly at low altitude, so if you went into a steep dive there was a good chance you’d end up ploughing into the deck, and climbing steeply would generally cause your plane to stall. In fact, participating in a dogfight was kind of like watching two valium-addled geriatrics wrestling each other for the last Werther’s Original. In slow motion.

However, the very fact that the planes were so completely rubbish was what made Knights of the Sky so exciting. Because it was so much of a struggle to fly your plane – and even to find, let alone shoot at, your opponent – winning a dogfight created a palpable sense of achievement. Especially if you could do it without unplugging your opponent’s joystick.

knights_of_the_sky_map

Of course, the game is not without its faults. The graphics, for example, could be politely described as ‘uninspiring’, and they look positively Stone Age by today’s standards. Also, the single player campaign could become a little dull after a while, and there wasn’t really enough variety to hold your interest for extended periods of time.

But for the two player mode alone, Knights of the Sky more than deserves to be on this list, if only because it proves that flights sims can be exciting after all.

(Skip to about the six minute mark to see some dogfighting action.)

Lewis

P.S. While researching this post, I came across a game called Rise of Flight. Could this be a spiritual successor to Knights of the Sky?

(Screenshots from www.lemonamiga.com)

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Filed under 1991, Amiga, Flight Simulator, MicroProse

#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