Hero Quest

In August 1991 Amstrad Action magazine put a demo of this game on their fifth regular covertape. While I didn’t play it much, being just a demo, there was something about the format of that game that grabbed me.

Hero Quest is a computer translation of a board game that only came out only a couple of years prior. At its heart it is a trapped back version of Dungeons and Dragons and similar choose your own adventure fantasy books which become popular during the 80’s. As in those games you choose to play as one of the classic Warrior, Sorcerer, Dwarf, or Elf and must explore a maze being the first player to complete a given objective.

The moment to moment gameplay follows the board game with the player rolling a virtual dice and moving a given number of moves around the maze. In gaming terms the result is a very stripped back and basic turn based RPG. The actual presentation is the familiar isometric 3D style made popular nearly a decade earlier on the ZX Spectrum in games like Knight Lore and Batman. The screen layout and player controls also who a debt to Populous.

Each mission is fairly short and without expansion discs number only around a dozen. However completion of later levels does require completion of earlier levels in order to ‘level up’ your character enough to completer those missions. As you explore mazes you will find equipment and potions, find gold and between missions are able to purchase better equipment to use going forward. A certain amount of replaying earlier levels and saving character profiles to a save disk is required to get to the end.

I’ve never played the board game but, much like later conversions like RISK, this does feel like it is faithful to the original source. This does create some minor problems with pace and randomness is battle results. Finding a way of managing your health is key, trying to to die while searching rooms to gain items that will help you not die. Likewise, constant dice rolling and square by square movement doesn’t exactly work playing single player.

3/5

Lemmings

There are few games that represent the 16-bit era as well as Lemmings. It did make a few ports over to the more popular, older, 8-bit machines, and on to games consoles of the time, but It never really translated well to keyboards, gamepads and joysticks. This is a game built for a mouse at a time when the mouse was new.

At its heart it is a fairly straight forward puzzle game. A number of rodents will appear through an entrance on one side of the screen and you need to guide them to safety through the exit on the other side of the screen. Simple enough. However these are Lemmings and any hazards between entrance and exists won’t be avoided. These critters will happily march to their death.

To avoid this you, the player, have the power to upgrade any Lemming in to a super-Lemming with a special ability. It’s the use of these special abilities that allow you to guide the little fellows away from danger and herd them to the exit. Lemmings are upgraded by selecting the required power from the menu at the bottom of the screen and then clicking on the Lemming needed to perform this task.

Improvements include climbing obsticles, parachuting (with an umbrella), bashing through rocks, digging out the ground and just stopping other Lemmings from going were they are not wanted.

There are around 100 levels in the original game at various difficulty from really easy dig a whole to highly frustrating falling to their death immediately out of the entrance, and everything in between. All levels are really well designed and the puzzles leave the player with that all important ‘one more try’ feeling as you spend most of your time learning from your failures.

As I said in the opening paragraph, this games was made for the mouse. It’s hard to think of another game that really thought about its design language and gameplay loop so well and married perfectly to a new input method. Much like Solitaire being given away by Microsoft with every copy of Windows 95.

5/5

Star Trek

The best way to describe this highly rated (both at the time and today) Amiga game by German Star Trek aficionado Tobias Richter is “Elite with a Star Trek skin”. This is a freeware public domain game released for the Amiga around mid-late 1989. The programmer, TJ Richter, was already highly regarded for making Star Trek related demos and animations when this game was released. He has since gone on to become a well regarded CGI artist and has done much work in the Trek universe.

The game itself is a pure openworld (universe) sandbox affair. You are placed in the role of Captain James T Kirk aboard the original NCC-1701 USS Enterprise. As you fly around the galaxy Starfleet HQ will check in and present you with missions to complete. Very elite like. Go here, pick up that, delivery it there. Along the way you’ll pretty randomly bump into other starships, enemies (both Klingon and Romulan), and other hazards like meteor storms and magnetic clouds.

The game is played via a GUI representation of the original enterprise bridge with you in the captains chair. You lease with AI in the various tradition bridge crew roles to manage your ship and complete your missions. Get the missions from the Comms officer, Tell the Navigator to fly to location, Instruct the Helmsmen in removing impeding obsticles, etc.

Given its source material, when it was released, its freeware nature, and sandbox experience it is a really good quality, polished experience that comes highly recommended to any Amiga and/or Star Trek fans. And certainly this was the view of popular publications of the time.

However the lens of history is a little more critical. Alas missions from Starfleet HQ come thick and fast with little breath taken to engage in one task before another three are queued up. Random encounters happen a little too often. Most annoying being fellow UFP starships just there for a fly by that is cool once but distracting for the fifth time en route to location 1. Likewise helms controls can be a bit finicky needing you to click on three different screen locations to fire off one shot to an encroaching asteroid of Romulan cruiser.

Still for small blasts the subject matter, sandbox, and presentational polish all shine through enough to make this a recommended Amiga experience.

4/5

Puzznic

Funny how things go round. Of late I seem to be playing games dear old Dad used to enjoy. Videogaming was never really his thing. Mum was always more happy to get involved and show some interest. So games like Jetpac, Cruising On Broadway, and much later Puzznic, do hold a very special place and fond memories.

This one came about because I upgraded my bedroom micro to a state of the art AGA powered Amiga 1200 (a second hand Commodore model at a time new Escom models were entering the stores). I needed to do something with my previous micro and the A600 had the perfect form factor to sit under the family TV and play the part of a game console much like the Mega Drive’s and SNES’s that were becoming popular at that time.

Alongside Jimmy White’s Whirlwind Snooker, Puzznic proved an instant family hit in this environment where anyone could easily switch it on, insert a disk, and get playing. Puzznic itself is a traditional block style puzzle game made for the arcades by Taito and ported to just about every home micro and console of the time by Ocean. It follows the general style/principle of game like Tetris, Columns, Sokoban, and Plotting.

Your task is simply to match the tiles. Putting two tiles of the same pattern next to each other make them disappear. All you need to do is make all the tiles on the screen disappear. Simple? For the first couple of levels it really is. Move yellow diamond on top of yellow diamond, then red circle next to red circle, and grey cones. And then the game offers up odd numbered tiles and the difficulty quickly ramps up. How do you get three, or more, tiles together when the first two disappear when they touch leaving you with an odd one?

As you get used to odd numbered tiles the game throws moving platforms at you to make it harder to get tiles of the same design in the same neck of the woods. And all of this happens under a minute/minute-half time limit with a claxon sounding and the music increasing it’s beat when you hit the 30 second mark to ramp up the pressure to complete the screen in time.

It’s a perfect puzzle game. Everything is very simple and yet, on higher levels, the obvious solutions may feel just slightly out of reach. And here in lays the games only real problem. It was made for the arcades so there is an coin eating hangover with the two retries and a limited number of continues (where you’d pay more to play on an arcade machine). Run out of continues and it’s back to Level 1 to battle through what you’ve already solved to have another attempt at the next screen that is keeping you awake a nights.

There is no saving your progress or password entry system to jump to your current progress point. You just have to start from the beginning and redo all the old puzzles before you can continue. And the game is a lot like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, in that you only need to complete 10 levels but after an easy 2-3 level false start the puzzles (questions) suddenly get much harder. I’ve made it as far as Level 6 using a few Continues.

Thankfully the level structure is set up as an expanding pyramid almost to combat this obvious criticism. After Level 1, which is always the same, each level has branching direction for you to take to Level 10. Each time you play you can take a different path and see different puzzle screens. This helps keep the game fresh and adds to the long term replay value. There are about 120 puzzle screens in total between all the branching paths for you to solve.

4/5

Battle Chess

Thirty years later it’s probably save to admit that when I finally got my hands on an Amiga the first thing I did was hop on a train and visit some old Amiga owning friends with a handful of blank disks and a copy of D-Copy. Battle Chess was one of the big must get, must play titles of the time.

I’ve played chess badly since our class teacher introduced us to the game during the penultimate year of primary school. We also played chess a lot during lunch breaks, in the library, at secondary school. All this youthful practice never made a player of me. Always struggled to see even one move ahead.

Still despite always being on the loosing end, even at the lowest difficulty settings, Battle Chess makes this ancient game thoroughly enjoyable thanks to some canny use of character animations. Every move sees your piece come alive, get up, and walk to the chosen square.

Better still when a piece is taken, time for some one on one combat. A short set piece animation shows the two combatants duelling it out. Each combination (pawn vs pawn, bishop vs knight, queen vs castle, etc) has it’s own unique animation depending on the two combatants and who is set to win. Most with a very good comedic value. Castle vs Knight is a particularly nice one with the poor knight receiving a nasty bang on the head.

4/5

SimCity

Every now and then a game comes along that does things a bit differently. Throws out the rule book and and takes a bit of a risk given the player a new gaming experience. SimCity is one of those games.

SimCity isn’t a game with a definite goal. It does tell you what you should do. There’s no right or wrong way to play. There’d been management sims before and games like Elite but this is the first real sandbox experience. Here’s the tools you need, get on with it.

You are provided with a birds eye view of some undeveloped landscape. As the resident town planning department for the newly formed city council it’s up to you to provide zoning rights for A.I. builders to develop in to a living, breathing metropolis. Where do you want the road network? How is the light rail (think DLR/Trams) connected? Power stations? Sport stadiums? Shopping precincts? Factories? Housing? It’s up to you to lay all this out how you feel.

There are a couple of head nods to traditional video gaming – IF you want to engage with them. Each year there’s a budget where you raise money through taxation to finance your ongoing building projects. You set the tax level and how much you fund the various city running costs. The other gamification is disasters. As your city grows you may have shipwrecks, plane crashes, tornados, etc, that seek to destroy parts of your hard labour and challenge you in to fixing the damage caused.

However both gaming mechanics can (for the most part) be safely ignored if, like me, you prefer concentrating on the basic no restrictions sandbox of city planning. There are a couple of simple cheats that reduces budgeting to an annual tax fiddle. As for disasters, on later versions of the game they can be permanently disabled in the main menu.

SimCity isn’t a perfect game. But it does come close. It is a very strong first outing paving the way for more complex future city building sims. The choices and variety of zoning types are a little limited. Later games will give you things like water supplies, zoning densities, etc. Likewise the annual budgeting (if you do want to engage properly with it) is very limited with just a single income tax and percentage funding for three city departments.

Despite it’s of the time low resolutions and limiting building options, the first SimCity remains a surprisingly fun and engaging game play today loosing none of its original charm.

4/5