Fred

This is among the earliest games I ever played. It was part of the Amsoft 12 pack, under the name of Roland On The Ropes, that came free with every Amstrad CPC464. A computer I got only a year after the ZX Spectrum. While the Amstrad version does make very good use of that computers superior colour palette, the two versions are as nigh on identical as two versions of the same game can be.

Back in the the late 80’s for some unfathomable reason I never really ‘got’ the maze nature of this game. Replaying properly some 30-odd years later and the riff on earlier maze games from the 70’s makes perfect sense. This is a quintessential random computer maze experience. It’s all about the presentation.

Presentation wise it has a very Indiana Jones feel and very reminiscent of Core Design’s Rick Dangerous that’ll appear on the scene some 5 years later. I do wonder, given the nature of some of the nasties, the ropes, and main character design, if Atari 2600’s Pitfall provided some inspiration for this game.

Fred, in the Spectrum version, is a very big chunky well detailed sprite. Something that immediately sets it apart from the more common smaller sprites in most spectrum games of around the time. Again the large character detail reminding me of a game like Saboteur that’d come out around a year later.

As you move around the maze you need to avoid nasties which will drain your energy. Ghosts are most common which can be shot at to encourage them to change direction. Little caterpillars crawl along floors need careful timing to jump over. And in later levels bouncing Mummies are a real treat to watch move around the maze.

On the way there’s a few collectibles to be had to boost your score but ultimately it is all about finding the rope leading to the exit somewhere at the very top of the maze.

Alas there are a couple of issues that just keeps this game from being an ideal 5-star outing. And I do think they are all things that were fixable with a bit more playtesting when the game was being written. Timing avoiding some nasties can be a little tricky and being hit stops movement while the player is red for a few seconds. Ropes can be difficult to mount and dismount and needs some unnecessary pixel perfect positioning.

The worst problem is how badly the game flickers and how slow movement is. Is the game written in BASIC? Too many sprites on screen? The Z80 not liking 2-way scrolling? Whatever the reason the slow flickering movement is almost a deal breaker.

4/5

Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee

This is a 5/5 game, it’s clearly a 5/5 game, it’s always been a 5/5 game. But, cut to the punch, I can’t in all honesty award it more than 4/5.

Abe’s Oddysee is one of the quintessential PlatyStation 1 games. It was one of the very first games acquired for the system way back in ‘the day’. I’ve played this many times over the years. Always one of the first games to be installed in any emulation. And this is the reason for its demotion into the 4/5 realms. At the end of Paramania there’s a level were you need to out run a nest of Paramites. At the start there’s some alternate platforms to wander and preview the layout of the obstacle course, but even with modern emulation cheats the course is impossible, I just can’t do it!

For those not in the know Abe is somewhat traditional 2D puzzle platformer. In style it feels very much the spiritual successor to the Amiga classic Flashback: Quest For Identity. You play loveable alien Abe who is a worker in a meat factory. It appears fellow members of his species are the latest product for canning. You guide Abe through a series of platform puzzles designed to take him on an adventure to free his species and bring down the evil mega corp.

At a time of the industry moving to and experimenting with 3D, a 2D platformer was a relatively brave thing to attempt. It pays off because Abe really does stand out visually among the pantheon of PS1 titles. The sprites, colours and animations the new generation of consoles could handle over the previous SNES and MegaDrive’s are really put to good use. There’s a very fluid feel to the animation that is extremely reminiscent of Flashbacks rotoscoping technique.

All in all a PS1 must play that only misses out on top marks thanks to an insane level of difficulty later on that even snapshotting in modern emulators cannot overcome.

4/5

Pandemonium!

The mid-90’s was an interesting time for the video gaming industry, and a particularly difficult time for games creators. Technology had reached the point to allow the shift away from 2D animations that had been the foundation of all video games since their inception just 20-years earlier, to a more realistic 3D art style. The problem is nobody really knew what this meant and how to create game in three dimensions. The software developers where discovering and designing the rule book for the games we’d be playing for the next 20-years.

Platform games in particular struggled with this transition. By the end of the 80’s they had become probably the primary and most popular genre of video games. Mostly due to the phenomenal success of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros, released in 1985, which all but wrote the rule book for this particular genre.

There’d be several attempts at making this transition from the first person Jumpin’ Flash!, to the fully 3D Crash Bandicoot and a number of, what we call today, 2.5D (halfway between 2D and 3D) including both Abe’s Oddysee and Pandemonium! before Nintendo once again wrote the rule book for 3D platformers with Mario 3D and then the world slowly come to the realisation that 2D is best for this genre and 2.5D is the compromise.

Pandemonium’s take on 2.5D Platforming is to fully build everything is lifelike 3D but restrict the player movement to standard 2D left-right and fixing the camera to the side of the player. This exposes the biggest issue with 2.5D games and that’s camera positioning. Abe’s Oddysee solves this but going for a single screen flip-book affair similar to 2D platformers prior to Super Mario.

Pandemonium attempts to completely recreate the side scrolling Super Mario experience in 3D and camera positioning is vital for this to work. The main issue, which Pandemonium does succumb to, is the player not seeing enough of what is to come to give them suitable time to react. Instead relying on the old, old, Platforming trope of player repetition to learn that “when I turn this corner there’d be an enemy/jump/gap/etc”.

There’s also the issue of how the camera follows the player and moves around the course. Pandemonium went for something a little rigid to the course flows through the camera rather than the camera flowing around the course. This creates instances were pushing right on the controller moves your player away or left as the character follows the flow of the course. Controller Right in this instance being used to “move forward” rather than “move in direction”.

Thankfully Pandemonium manages to transcend the issues it faces from its embryonic move into the 3D play space. The core game is a fairly competent if somewhat average run’n’jump sidescroll platformer in the vain of Castle Of Illusion, Rayman, or Cool Spot. However its saving grace is an art style reminiscent of those older 2D games that fully suits the limitations of the 3D hardware of the time. In a word its about presentation.

Pandemonium nails presentation and gameplay. Because of this it’s very easy to forgive the restrictions imposed by the camera positioning.

4/5

Manic Miner

This game was released in 1983. A time before game saves. You had lives. Run out of them and it’s game over – back to the very beginning to try again. How anyone ever completed all 20 levels of this game prior to the emergence of emulators on more modern hardware in the mid-90’s I’d never know. Maybe a cheat device like Romantic Robot’s Multiface to hack in infinite lives? Without that I’m sure it’s impossible, at least not without going completely insane. You see having three lives and dying on level 8 meant working flawlessly through the previous 7 levels //again// before having your next shot and working out how to beat that difficult level you’ve just encountered. Even with modern emulators allowing me to save state and instant reload at the start of the current level I bowed out at level 8 (Miner Willy Meets The Kong Beast).

You might reflect on all that and consider this all a bad thing and feel negatively about the game, and yet somehow its not. Maybe because this was fairly unique for its time. It’s loosely based on the Atari 2600 game Miner 2049er and similar early platforming experience like Donkey Kong (the head nod being giving by the aforementioned level 8). Maybe it was the number of levels, having gone from just 4 in Donkey Kong to 10 in Miner 2049er to 20 in Manic Miner. Or maybe it’s just the addictive fairness offered by the ‘just one more go’ mentality of Matthew Smith’s fiendish level designs. The game is difficult, but it’s fun.

Each level plays out the same way, jump between platforms and collect the flashing keys to open the door and exit while avoiding just about everything else on the screen which will kill you and remove a life. With only 3 lives on offer for the whole game and plenty of pixel perfect timing to be had there’s a lot of practice needed to get even close to the half way point.

Really this game gets its much deserved reputation for a combination of era timing and presentation. A couple of years later and the graphics would be considered dated and the difficulty too hard and this game would be in the garbage pile of history. Thankfully this game along at just the right moment in time. Along with Jetpac and Attic Attac, Manic Miner makes up a trilogy of top class, unique, arcade games brought to the ZX Spectrum for the Christmas of 1983 and ushered in a new era in video gaming far removed from the basic offerings of previous systems like the Atari 2600 of VIC-20.

5/5

Crash Bandicoot

Like many this was the first time I heard the words “Naughty Dog” and it’s very interesting looking at the developer and their evolution through to The Last Of Part II. You can really see the evolution in their games from Crash, through Jak and Uncharted, to Last of Us. While there are early ND games, this is the one that pretty much kicked started the company and sold them as a by-word for quality on the PlayStation platform.

Crash is one of a few games from the 95-7 period that was experimenting and trying to find an answer to the big question of the day – how to make a Super Mario like platform game, the most popular genre of the previous 5-8years, in 3D. And to be fair, with a couple of very minor issues, ND nail it first try.

The more cartoon-like art style makes for a more pleasing, high quality look and feel, 3D than the more realistic but blocky 3D of games such as Tomb Raider. The game plays in the third person and handles just like any previous 2D platformer using an over the shoulder camera. The game runs linearly and pretty much entirely “on rails”, other than jump and move forward there isn’t a lot of wiggle room for player movement, which is kind of what you want from a platform game.

You need to run through the levels breaking boxes and collecting apples. 99 apples equals one extra life, so there’s some good incentive to try and get all the apples you can find. A few nasties like skunks and man (Bandicoot) eating plants will try to impeed your progress but you have a nice spin attack that timed well will dispatch them.

The game has some problems with timing jumps which can be tricky turning in mid air and getting pixel perfect landing in a 3D environment (these things can be hard enough and frustrating in 2D platformers). Also running into the screen where you can’t see what is coming next (the boulders level) wasn’t really that good an idea.

The other more major annoyance is how the game handles save points. You need to collect three girlfriend tokens to enter a bonus stage. You then need to successfully complete the bonus stage to be able to save to memory card. And the save point itself then is at the very start of the current level, not the point in the game you reached when you entered the bonus stage. This makes it very hard to manage progress and makes for a very unfair hit when things go wrong. Why not just setup regular games saves at the beginning of each level?

4/5

Jetpac

This game has a very special place in my heart. It’s probably not the very first video game I ever played, there are a couple of other good contenders for that (Galaxian, Breakout, Cruising On Broadway) but it is definitely up there. Like Cruising this was one of the very few games my Dad actually took an active interest in. It was among the three or four cassettes with a 16K Sinclair ZX Spectrum given to us by our next door neighbour when I was 9.

It was also the game that showed the most longevity and was the highest quality in visual appeal and gameplay. Other games, like Throu’ The Wall (Breakout) and Cruising On Broadway were very simple line drawn and blocky graphics reminiscent of an unknown previous era. Jetpac was a fall on arcade quality game (though I’d never seen or heard of what an arcade might be back then).

The reason for Jetpac’s high production values comes from the writers Tim and Chris Stamper. The brothers wrote the games and run the company behind the then popular Ultimate Play The Game label which later went on to produce very high quality games under the RARE label for several Nintendo consoles. Jetpac’s arcade values wasn’t by chance, Tim and Chris actually got their start porting arcade games from NTSC to PAL. Converting games from the likes of Konami and Sega gave them the grounding needed for a certain production quality that they brought to all of their ZX Spectrum games.

During a time many commercial games where being written in BASIC, Jetpac was an early poster child for pure Machine Code programming. The detail of the sprites, the use of the Spectrums colour palate and attribute system, and the speed of fluidity of the animations showed a game that could have happily succeeded next to the likes of Galaxian, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong in the arcades.

You play the eponymous Jetman character and must guide him around a simple single screen with three platforms. Your task is to build your spaceship and refuel it before taking off from the planet. While doing this you’ll be under constant attack from the locals that you’ll need to fend of the locals with your lazer fire.

The size of this game compared to anything else at the time is breath taking. There are 16 whole distinct levels before the game wrap rounds and starts again. Every fourth level (1,5,9,13) have a new spaceship design for you to build. And there are 8 different alien designs that repeat (1-8,9-16), so you need to make it back round to level 17 before you see the same spaceship and alien combination.

How they got all of this in just 16K of RAM is mind boggling. And it’s a great game to boot. At no time does the gameplay suffer for high quality of the graphics and animation. If there’s a complaint it’ that there really is only one level design, but since you have four different ship designs and each of the 8 aliens have their own unique attack patterns it really doesn’t matter. Each level has it’s own unique feel regardless.

The Stampers captured that important – just one more go – magic of the early arcades. The need to see what’s next and set the new high score.

5/5