Category Archives: 1994

#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

#86: Rise of the Robots

Format: Amiga 1200 Genre: Fighting Game Released: 1994 Developer: Mirage

‘Even if you don’t believe in Father Christmas, it might be worth writing to him to make sure he doesn’t bring you a copy of this’. Jonathan Davies, Rise of the Robots review, Amiga Power 45. In 1993 various video game magazines ran previews of a beat-’em up that seemed to be from the future. It looked stunning, with graphics that promised to be far superior to anything else out there. Not only that but the gameplay was going to break new ground too, with computer opponents that ‘learned’ as they fought you, adapting their fighting style to match yours. All in all Rise of the Robots, for that was the name of this legendary game, was going to be THE game of 1994. Unfortunately, as Jonathan Davies alludes to in the above quote, Rise of the Robots was shit.

Rise of the Robots was more than just a video game, it was an event. The previews of 1993 turned into a steady stream of hype throughout 1994. There was talk of tie-in books, comics, toys, cartoons and a film. It was to be released on practically every platform and giant cardboard robots were cropping up in video game shops across the country. Brian May was even going to write the soundtrack.

Brian May pictured with a relaxed GamesMaster

Being an impressionable 14 year-old I was extremely excited about Rise of the Robots. It looked simply amazing. I mean, you got to be a kung-fu robot! Just watch the video below for a taste of the building excitement. It ‘redefines the fighting genre and raises the ante on gamers with a futuristic motif proven in focus groups’. Focus groups like the motif, what more do you want?

Just after Christmas (the same Christmas I got UFO: Enemy Unknown), with a decent chunk of Christmas money jangling in our pockets, my brother and I went to Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street and, £40 later, we had picked up Rise of the Robots. I always remember how huge the box was. Well in fairness it had to be. On the Amiga 1200 Rise of the Robots came on 13 disks. That’s right, 13.

Rushing home we inserted the first disk and were confronted by a very impressive intro. ‘This is going to be great’ we thought. Then, after an hour or two, we both felt something was wrong. Could Rise of the Robots be… rubbish? Neither my brother or myself could believe it. In fact I remember assuming that we were playing it wrong, that it was our fault that you could beat every robot by doing a flying kick. That there was a way of turning round and jumping over the other fighter we just hadn’t worked out how. That you could pick a fighter who wasn’t the blue cyborg, you just had to complete it or something. How could all the hype be wrong?

It's the big Gorilla Robot! Can't wait to play through the game as him. Oh. You can't.

Rise of the Robots was crippled by its flashy visuals. So much computing power was devoted to having beautifully animated robots that there was nothing left for the rest of the game. I distinctly remember reading Jonathan Davies review and just feeling sad. Ok, at least now I knew it wasn’t my fault the game seemed to be poor. It was poor. But I felt swindled, the victim of a con.

IT'S RUBBISH!

An important lesson for any child to learn is that all that glitters is not gold. Sometimes that which glitters is simply that, a glittery thing. Not only that but rubbish stuff is often coated in glitter to try to distract you from the rubbish underneath. Rise of the Robots, covered in metaphorical glitter (plus fairy lights, shiny baubles and tin foil), taught me that lesson. So in that way, and in no other, Rise of the Robots made my life slightly better.

Ian

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Filed under 1994, Amiga, Fighting, Mirage

#83: UFO: Enemy Unknown

Format: Amiga 1200 Genre: Strategy, Turn Based Tactics Released: 1994 Developer: MicroProse

 

UFO: Enemy Unknown box art with, as was usual in those days, a picture of something that did not appear in the game.

 

Do you believe in love at first sight? That you could be at a crowded bus stop in the rain and your eyes meet with a special someone. Suddenly you know that this is the person who is going to make your life complete, that will bring sunshine and happiness into the darkest corners of your soul and will be the one who has to sort through your stuff after you drop dead from an aneurysm which struck as you were bending over to pick up a (101 Video Games) pencil off the floor?

I don’t. In fact I’ve had several relationships with women that, when we first met, neither of us was particularly interested. Or more accurately they weren’t particularly interested. But on the second or third meeting something clicks, and before you can say ‘I must warn you that there’s a history of aneurysm and pencil related death in my family’ you’re strolling through parks holding hands and kissing each other inappropriately in front of friends while they try to pretend they can’t see you and awkwardly carry on their conversation.

It’s not just love that sometimes strikes the second time around. Ever seen a film or heard an album that for whatever reason you just can’t get into? Then you’ll go back to it a few months, or even years, down the line and for some reason you see or hear something you just didn’t notice before.

Happens to me all the time. But for some reason it doesn’t really happen with video games. Maybe it’s because the video game, as a medium for entertainment, is constantly evolving. That in the same time you might try an album once then give it another go a bit later a game would have had three sequels with vastly improved graphics and game play. There was one game though that I definitely came back to years later, and got far more into than I ever did the first time around, and that’s UFO: Enemy Unknown.

I got UFO: Enemy Unknown (also known in the US as X-Com: Enemy Unknown)for Christmas 1994. Set in the insanely futuristic world of 1998, UFO put you in charge of a secret, international, military organisation dedicated to intercepting UFOs and defeating the cattle bothering, probe wielding aliens within. A mixture of resource management and turn based tactics, UFO tapped into the general popularity of aliens, conspiracy theories and the unexplained that was floating around in the premillennial mid-90s. The tone of the game was all dark shadow-y. The X-Files had just started to be shown on terrestrial British TV and I remember how every review of the game ‘hilariously’ referenced Scully and Mulder in some way.

 

Find out what makes a 'Grey' grey.

 

I was really into all that kind of stuff back then and couldn’t wait to get my hands on the game and start dissecting aliens. Imagine my disappointment when I realised I was rubbish at it. My troops would be wiped out during the turn based missions. My bases would struggle to break even as various countries would pull their funding and start making secret deals with the aliens and I never seemed to have enough alien materials to build better weapons. After about a year of trying, I gave up.

 

Equiping your troops so they can face those evil aliens. The game would randomly generate a name for each soldier, all of which were ridiculous. For some reason MicroProse seemed to think that just 4 years into the future we'd all change our names to things like Boris Zachery.

 

Flash forward to the even more futuristic year of 1999. I’ve just got a second-hand laptop so I can write essays at home rather than in the University Library. And of course play games. While out one day I came across a budget collection of all the X-Com games and, on a whim, decide to get it. I more or less ignore all the follow ups but decide to try UFO: Enemy Unknown again and this time… This time I get it.

 

The mission sections had a curious feature where an enemy would only appear on-screen if a character was looking at them. This lead often led to you stumbling on a group of aliens, or worse, being killed by an alien which you somehow didn't notice as it wasn't directly in your eye line, despite it standing right next to you!

 

I don’t know if it was just me being a bit older, or by sheer chance I had stumbled on how crack the game (lots of saving basically – maybe I felt that saving every other go was cheating when I was 15). Whatever the reason the second time around it clicked with me, and I became obsessed with finishing it. I certainly wasted a lot of time playing it when I should have been writing those essays. A lot of people seem to have been similarly obsessed, there seems to be a massive on-line fan community with all sorts of updated versions of the game and mods. There’s even a new sort of sequel currently in development – a first person shooter. (An FPS? Is nothing sacred?)

It still ranks as one of my favourite games ever. Indeed writing this has made me think that maybe I should give the game a third go…

 

You were recommended to place your first base in rich countries as they'll give you the funding. The UK was always my first base's location though. National pride was at stake!

 

Ian

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Filed under 1994, Amiga, MicroProse, Strategy, Turn-Based Tactics

#32: Killer Instinct

Format: Super NES/Coin-Op Genre: Fighting Released: 1994 Developer: Rare

Killer Instinct was fantastically naff really. The character designs were generally uninspired and the graphics had an odd sheen to them that made it look like everything had been sprayed with cooking oil. On top of this, most of the levels were incredibly murky (possibly in an attempt to make the game seem ‘darker’ and more adult), so the effect was a bit like watching bits of foil leaping about down a well. However, it was enormous fun to play, so that made everything all right.

killer_instinct_SNES

When the game came out, most gaming magazines trumpeted the fact that it was based on hardware from the long-awaited ‘Ultra 64’ (later rebranded with the decidedly more prosaic name ‘Nintendo 64’ when it was released two years later). As it turned out, this was all complete rubbish, and Killer Instinct actually turned up on the Super NES the next year, which somewhat tarnished its ‘next-generation’ image in my eyes (although it was hugely impressive that they managed to squeeze the whole game onto a SNES cartridge – obviously Rare is staffed by tiny gaming wizards with magic compression wands).

(Incidentally, Killer Instinct emerged at about the same time as Cruis’n USA, another game that was thought to be based on Ultra 64 architecture – unlike Killer Instinct however, Cruis’n USA was entirely bobbins and not really the best of adverts for Nintendo’s new console. Even if it wasn’t actually developed on one. Does that make sense?)

Killer Instinct ready screen

Killer Instinct fought its way into my life when I was going through the teenage phase of hanging around McDonald’s for want of anything better to do. Calendars, the American-style diner next door to MaccyD’s, decided to install a single Killer Instinct arcade machine right in their entrance hall, presumably to keep customers entertained while they were waiting for a table. Not that we ever let the actual customers have a go on it, although thanks to this particular coin-op my friends and I made a substantial contribution to Calendars’ revenue during the summer of ’95.

Killer Instinct Cinder

The game’s biggest gimmick was its combo system, which went above and beyond the call of duty – if I remember rightly, some characters could even deliver 56 hit combos (which I imagine would have been intensely irritating for the recipient).* My friends and I spent most of that long, hot summer poring over combo lists in the backs of game magazines, desperately trying to make longer and longer combos. I think the best I ever managed was 24.

Killer Instinct 80 hit Combo

Looking back, there were probably better things I could have been doing that summer than hanging around in the entrance to a restaurant and memorising complicated lists of button presses. But for the moment they escape me, as all I can think about is laying the smack down on shiny robot knights and Harryhausen-esque skeletons…

Hey, I wonder how much  Killer Instinct goes for on eBay…?

Lewis

*Although from the screenshot above, it looks like an 80 hit combo was possible. Cor, and indeed, blimey.

However, it was enormous fun to play, so that made everything all right.

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Filed under 1994, Coin-Op, Fighting, Rare, Super NES

#24: Super Metroid

Format: Super NES Genre: Adventure Released: 1994 Developer: Nintendo

Metroid Prime on the GameCube was a strong contender for the list, but in the end I decided to go with Super Metroid as my most fondly remembered Metroid game. If you’ve never played it, I urge you to download it from the Wii Virtual Console with all possible rapidity – it really is an absolute classic, reflected in that fact that it’s still knocking around the top of the Game Rankings ‘All Time Best‘ list.

Super Metroid Pal Box

The thing that always stands out in my memory about Super Metroid is the bloody great big box that it came in – bizarrely, Nintendo decided to ship the European version of the game with an enormous strategy guide detailing every last corridor and secret item in the whole game. I don’t think this kind of marketing tactic has been attempted before or since (correct me if I’m wrong) and you’ve got to admit that it’s a bit of strange decision. It’s as if Nintendo were about to launch the game and then suddenly thought:

“Ooooh, maybe it’s too difficult for them? What if they get a bit, you know, frustrated? I know, let’s tell them exactly how to do everything in the entire game. That should do it.”

Of course, hardcore players like me don’t need strategy guides (“Ha! I laugh in the face of your pathetic guide of weakness!”), and I blitzed my way through this enormous and complex game with nary a moment’s pause.

OK, maybe I peeked at the guide a teeny weeny bit, but only when I was really stuck. Honest.

super metroid 1

The highlights of Super Metroid were undoubtedly the bosses – particularly the screen-filling Kraid (see screenshot below). He (I presume he’s a he anyway) doesn’t seem to learn though. Put it this way: if I was entirely invulnerable except for a weak spot in my mouth, I would probably keep my mouth shut the entire time, rather than periodically unleashing reptilian screams of fury then wondering why I kept getting hurt.

super metroid 4

However, I think the overall reason that Super Metroid was so successful was that it constantly drove you to see what was around the next corner. Every few screens you’re presented with some sort of barrier to your progress – perhaps a seemingly impassable lava pit or a platform that’s just out of reach – and one of the game’s joys is collecting a new item or ability and then backtracking through the game to see what new areas it will open to you. In fact, Super Metroid engendered an almost compulsive urge to explore every nook and cranny of the game world in the hunt for elusive weapons and upgrades, and the triumphal music that accompanies the discovery of each item is right up there as one of the most pleasing game sound effects of all time (possibly only beaten by the music accompanying the opening of a treasure chest in Zelda: Ocarina of Time).

super metroid 3

You could argue that its excellent graphics and inspired shift to 3D make Metroid Prime the instant stand-out game of the Metroid series, but in terms of gameplay there’s very little Prime does that Super Metroid doesn’t.

Excluding duplicated games, Super Metroid is currently at number 8 in the All Time Best games list – which is frankly not high enough in my opinion. Buy this game now: you won’t regret it.

Lewis

(Screenshots from www.vgmuseum.com)

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Filed under 1994, Adventure, Nintendo, Super NES

#11: Beneath a Steel Sky

Format: Amiga Genre: Point-and-Click Adventure Released: 1994 Developer: Revolution

Ah, the point-and-click adventure – a genre so fondly remembered yet so close to extinction…

The fortunes of these most traditional of adventure games took a nosedive with the demise of the Amiga and never really recovered; the kids got into their fancy new ‘Grand Theft Autos’ and ‘Tomb Raiders’ and rapidly lost interest in figuring out how to combine broken string with some mud in order to create a mask with which to frighten the temple guard into giving you the key for the dungeon. Actually, when you put it like that it’s probably not surprising that the popularity of these games waned – after all, one of the best points about Grand Theft Auto is that you never have to spend twenty minutes painstakingly combing the screen with the mouse in a bid to work out whether you’ve missed picking up an essential item. “Ah, so that tiny yellow-green blob 14 screens back was actually a key!” is something you’ll never hear uttered by players of GTA.

beneath_a_steel_sky_cover_art

Of course, I’m doing the genre a disservice – for all the frustrating back-and-forth wandering and pixel hunting there were a hundred more golden moments of ‘Eureka!’-style puzzle solving, not to mention elaborate plot twists. For, of course, ’tis in the narrative where these games truly excel, and Beneath a Steel Sky was a shining beacon in this respect. The developers even went so far as to create a mini-comic to be shipped with the game, detailing the events leading up to the opening credits.

beneath_a_steel_sky_hunting_kangaroos

Set in a dystopian future Australia, the comic describes how the main character, Robert Foster*, is raised by Indigenous Australians after a helicopter crash in ‘The Gap’ (the Australian Outback). He learns electronics and builds himself a robot, Joey, who becomes your companion throughout the game. Upon reaching adulthood, Foster is kidnapped by stormtroopers sent from Union City (a possible future Sydney), and his tribe is murdered. The stormtroopers have been sent by LINC, the mysterious computer mainframe that controls the city.

beneath_a_steel_sky_screenshot_4

The game proper opens with a jaw-droppingly animated (for the Amiga) sequence as the helicopter crashlands in Union City and Foster escapes. It emerges that in this ruthless future world, cities comprised of mammoth skyscrapers have swallowed up most of the remaining liveable land. Working class citizens are confined to the upper levels of the city, whereas the leisure elite luxuriate below (‘beneath a steel sky’, geddit?). In order to confront LINC and learn the truth about his past, Foster must evade security and work his way down to the lower levels.

watchmen_characters

If the set-up sounds a little similar to Mega-City One in Judge Dredd, then it’s no coincidence – Dave Gibbons (of 2000 AD and Watchmen fame) did all of the artwork for the game (including the mini-comic), and every screen simply drips with cyberpunk chic. At the time it looked astonishing, and even now the dystopian backdrops are capitivating. The anticipation of what graphical delight awaited you on the next screen was almost as much of a draw as the fantastic plot.

beneath_a_steel_sky_screenshot_1

Even though the game plot was more serious than some of it’s point-and-click contemporaries (e.g. The Secret of Monkey Island), BaSS still managed to squeeze in a fair amount of humour, mostly of the British variety (i.e. double entendres and sarcasm). Indeed, the fact that the game never takes itself too seriously is one of its most enduring features (Gears of War take note – non-stop, po-faced machismo is more likely to make gamers laugh derisively into their sleeves than empathise with the characters).

beneath_a_steel_sky_screenshot_2

Of course, it wasn’t all a bed of roses. The chief problem with the game was it’s sheer size (in terms of memory space anyway): the Amiga 600 version of the game came on a whopping 15 floppy disks (which I believe is actually the most disks used by one Amiga game – correct me if I’m wrong). This meant that backtracking through screens might involve several bouts of disk-swapping and loading, which became very tedious very quickly. Luckily I upgraded to an Amiga 1200 after I got BaSS, which meant that I could load the game in its entirety onto the 1200’s mighty 60 megabyte hard drive.

Blimey, it’s crazy to think now that my current mobile phone has nearly 67 times more memory than my old Amiga 1200…

beneath_a_steel_sky_screenshot_31

The other major problem with the game was the problem shared by many point-and-clickers – that of the obscure puzzle. To be fair, BaSS was relatively good in this regard compared with some other examples in the genre, but even one of the first puzzles in the game (which involved wrenching a rung from a ladder to use as a crowbar) had me backtracking between screens for AGES. And of course, all this was in the days before GameFAQs.com (God bless you GameFAQs! Sing hallelujah, for yay, the days of becoming frustratingly stuck in video games hath endeth!).

Of all the games on this list, I’d rate BaSS in the top five games I’d like to play again, which just goes to show how much of an impression it left on me (if you fancy giving it a go yourself, you can play it for free using ScummVM). Interestingly, it seems that point-and-click adventure games are starting to make a bit of a comeback, chiefly thanks to the Nintendo Wii and DS. The laid back pace of the point-and-clicker is perfect for the older end of Nintendo’s gaming spectrum, and the Wii remote and DS stylus might as well have been custom made for playing this kind of game… With talk of a Director’s Cut of Broken Sword to be released for the Wii and DS, as well as the release of a new generation of point-and-clickers (e.g. Sam & Max: Season One, The Secret Files: Tunguska), perhaps this is the start of a point-and-click rennaissance?

In the meantime, here’s a clip of BaSS to whet your appetite – this is the CD-ROM version of the game, which used voice acting rather than text (although, inexplicably, everyone seems to be American, even though the game is set in Australia…).

Lewis

*An empty can of a certain Australian beer is found near the crash site, thus providing Foster with his surname.

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Filed under 1994, Amiga, Point-and-Click Adventure, Revolution