Tag Archives: Commodore 64

The crossover event of the year

Well okay, that might be a bit of hyperbole. But I was invited to do a crossover with the folks over at The Well-Red Mage. A gaming blog that puts out some of the most intricately detailed articles you will ever read. It’s great stuff. Even your favorite magazines as a teenager covering the latest Mortal Kombat game never went this deep in the weeds.

Anyway, they’re doing a massive event this month highlighting games on different systems you should consider adding to your collection. I was asked to help by going over some classic Commodore 64 goodness. So crack a beer, click the link, and enjoy. And while you’re there you may want to check out the other articles throughout the rest of the month. They’ll feature some other great guests you ought to check out. Thanks to The Well-Red Mage for the opportunity.

Console Challenge Day 3: Top 7 best Commodore 64 games!

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River Raid Review

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Released in 1982, River Raid was one of Activision’s earliest hits. Long before being known for controversial business practices, and publishing another Call Of Duty annually they were a fledgling upstart. One that took the unbridled creativity of ex Atari programmers, and gave them credit for producing games. Many of the early Activision names went on to have big successes on the Atari 2600. David Crane, Garry Kitchen, were two of the big names. But River Raid was made by Carol Shaw.

PROS: Tight controls. Game play innovations. One of the 2600’s marvels.

CONS: The complete lack of a soundtrack.

RED ALERT: The panic ensues at higher stages.

She had done other games while working for Atari, like 3D Tic-Tac-Toe which added an awful lot of depth to a simple game. But River Raid was, and still is one of the technical marvels in the Atari 2600 library. It was also one of the earliest games that would publicly acknowledge a woman for creating it. Not only does the River Raid manual include a short bio about her (the way all of the early Activision game manuals credited their games’ respective designers), future ports made her name the marquee.

As for the game itself, it may seem like any other simple arcade style shoot ’em up of the era. But River Raid, does a lot of things that were revolutionary at the time. For starters, when you fire up the game for the first time, you’ll see visual details that many other 2600 games simply did not have at that time. Most of the 2600 shmups up to that point took place on a black background, on a static screen. River Raid also bucked that trend, by being one of the earliest shooting games on the 2600 to scroll vertically. Many other titles would also show up around that time to do vertical scrolling like Data Age’s Journey Escape, or Parker Bros.’ Spider-Man. Players who weren’t around for those early years of console games, may not realize just how big a deal this was.

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That one feature would set it apart from many other games released on the market from 1977 to 1982. But a lot of vertically scrolling games made for the VCS in 1982 onward would now have to meet or beat this standard. Graphically, River Raid is also one of the most visually impressive games on the Atari 2600. The game makes excellent use of color to determine where there is water, where there is land, and even has some pretty cool enemy vehicle designs.

The object of the game of course, is to try to score as many points as possible without touching any land. Or crashing into vehicles or bridges for that matter. You’re flying along a river of no return. As such, you’re basically flying just above the choppy waters trying to shoot down targets. You’ll be blowing up tanker ships, helicopters, and higher altitude fighter planes. The river is broken up into sections. At the end of each of these sections is a bridge that needs to be destroyed in order to advance to the next section.

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All of this might sound pretty easy until you also notice there’s a fuel gauge on the screen. River Raid also utilizes a fuel system. If your plane runs out of gas, at any time you’ll fall into the river, and explode. How do you keep your aircraft fuelled, and airborne? By flying over fuel tanks. But the little touches that add complexity aren’t over yet. You see, you can also accelerate, and decelerate your plane. pushing up on the joystick will speed up your plane, while pulling back will slow it down. What complicates matters is the fact that the faster you fly, the faster you run out of gas, and it becomes harder to maneuver small areas.

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Moreover, the sections of river become more, and more complex the further you go. The game speeds up, and you’ll see branching paths in the river at the last possible second. Then you’ll have to start making split second choices. Do you take the path with more enemies, and try to go for points? Or do you take the path with a lot of twists, and turns? The latter might not have enemies, but it does have a lot of fuel. On the other hand, the paths are narrow. So getting through without crashing into a riverfront house is going to prove difficult. And of course the game’s scoring system gives you some respectable points for blowing up fuel containers. But if you do that, you won’t be able to get all of the fuel out of them. Unless you become a top-tier player who knows exactly when to blow up the container while refueling. One thing that is nice, is that the game sets off a warning when you’re almost out of fuel. You also get extra lives for doing well. Every 10,000 points will give you an extra plane, though you will max out at nine of them.

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Of course, River Raid did so well on the Atari 2600 Activision would port it to most of the popular platforms of the era. There were versions for the Atari 8-bit family of home computers, as well as the Atari 5200. There were also ports for IBM PC compatibles, the MSX, ZX Spectrum, and Commodore 64 computers too. Activision even put out versions for the Intellivision, and ColecoVision.  Nearly all of these versions look much better than the 2600 original, but the 2600 version is arguably a little bit more responsive than some of the others. A few of the ports do add a few arrows to the quiver like tanks that shoot at you from the bridges, and faster attack helicopters. Still, no matter which version of the game you pick up, you’re going to have a great time. River Raid stands the test of time because of the core game design. Every aspect of the game offers you some element of risk versus reward. It also does this with some airtight controls. If you’re collecting for a platform it appeared on, you really ought to pick it up. Especially if that platform is the Atari 2600. The 2600 original is a pioneer on many fronts, and it’s still a blast today. Classic game enthusiasts are still trying to speed run their way to the kill screen of exclamation. Whether you grew up playing shmups in the era of Space Invaders or the era of Ikaruga, chances are you’ll be able to appreciate River Raid, and what it did for the decades of shmups that followed.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Boulder Dash XL 3D Review

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Way back in 1984 came an excellent platform puzzle game called Boulder Dash. It was a big hit on home computers of the time. The Atari 400/800 version came first, but the game made its way to the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and some of the consoles like the Colecovision. There was even an NES port. Over the years it has seen newer versions. Some by First Star Software, the company who created it. Others by different developers who were licensed to do so.

PROS: A really great take on Boulder Dash with some refinements.

CONS: Some of the tweaks aren’t intuitive.

ROBOTS: Your quasi-human miners have been replaced by automatons.

In 2012, a small outfit called Catnip made a new version for the Xbox Live service, and computers called Boulder Dash XL. It replaced the main characters with robot interpretations, but it retained the spirit of the original game fairly well. It also added a few new spins on the game which I’ll get to in a bit. Boulder Dash XL 3D is a port of that game to the 3DS. This port was done by the folks at Ludosity who went on to make the well received Princess Remedy games on Steam.

For the uninitiated, Boulder Dash is a series where you collect diamonds while mining. You’re given a few minutes to get a certain number of diamonds, and then make your way to the exit. You do this, by moving around the stages, digging dirt, and picking them up. The challenge of course is trying to get these without getting crushed. Much like the rocks in Dig Dug, digging out the dirt from beneath the boulders will cause them to fall. You can also be crushed by the very diamonds you collect.

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But where Dig Dug focused more on defeating all of the bad guys in the stage to advance, Boulder Dash does a lot more with the boulders (hence the name.). Boulders, and diamonds will shift to the left or the right as they fall on top of one another.  When you first start out, the earliest levels are pretty easy to figure out. You’ll find you can get the required number of diamonds, and get to the exit. There’s a bit of risk/reward too in that you can also try to get all of the diamonds for bonus points rather than just the required number to exit. Of course, getting all of the diamonds requires nearly flawless puzzle solving skills. Often times making a mistake will not only keep you from getting that last diamond, but may get you trapped between boulders, forcing you to restart.

But its a very engrossing formula, and this version adds a host of new mechanics to an already fun game. There are transporters, there are boxes that turn boulders into diamonds, and vice versa. They even added a few power ups on some levels that are used in a number of puzzles. That’s in addition to some of the newer takes on enemy types featured here. There is a large wealth of content here too. There are around 100 stages or more for you to play through. This edition also has several modes in it.

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The primary mode is the Arcade mode, where the game puts you through the 100 stages in a row. This mode works with the traditional Boulder Dash rules. You’re given a time limit, and you have to get the qualifying number of diamonds to make the exit appear so you can escape as quickly as possible for the most time points. Again, getting every diamond is worth a huge bonus, but you risk running out of time, or trapping yourself if you don’t get them just right.

Next up is Puzzle mode, which gives you a 25 stage gauntlet. Every stage you complete can be replayed at any time, but you’ll have to beat them all in a row in order to see them all. This mode eschews the time limit, giving you more time to experiment, and figure out exactly how the level designers wanted you to find your way out of the mazes.

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Zen mode is essentially the Arcade mode but without the time limit. So in a way it feels like a giant practice mode where you can try to fine tune your techniques on each of the stages to minimize the amount of time it takes you to clear them. It’s pretty neat from that particular perspective, but most will likely prefer the Arcade mode over it since it’s a lot more high stakes, which feels more rewarding when you succeed.

 

Score mode features four stages where you can either try to go for the time bonus or you can try to get every last diamond possible. To get the best scores, you’ll likely have to skip a number of diamonds as it’s a balance of knowing how many diamonds, and how many seconds left on the clock will get you in terms of points. It’s an interesting concept some players may enjoy. To me it isn’t as interesting as the Puzzle mode, or as fun as the Arcade mode. But still fun to check out.

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Retro mode is one of the coolest inclusions in this game. It’s a combination of stages from the original game, as well as all new stages specific to this iteration. The interesting thing it does is replace all of the textures with the original 8-bit tile sprites from the Commodore 64 version of the first Boulder Dash. There are 25 stages in this set, and for older people like me who pick this up, the nostalgia it conjures up is great. But for people who never played the original, the newer stages are still a nice challenge. So even if you pick this up having never played the original, this mode gives you more content to enjoy.

 

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Visually, the main game on display here is pretty nice. The blocks, boulders, and diamonds all look pretty good, and the monsters all have pretty interesting takes on their original designs. There’s also a pretty good use of lighting considering the obviously smaller budget when compared to a lot of the big hits on the 3DS. Be that as it may, the change from the humanoid miners to robots is a bit weird. It by no means hampers the game. It isn’t going to make any old timers scream “Sacrilege!” to the heavens. It’s just a small change that doesn’t make any sense. As for the 3D, I couldn’t really test that out, as I own a 2DS which doesn’t have the 3D functionality. But honestly this isn’t the kind of game that requires 3D to enjoy. In terms of performance, I didn’t run into any major issues, though there was some minor slowdown when I caused a slew of boulders to fall at once. Still, it didn’t get in the way of the actual game play.

There isn’t much in the way of good audio here though. The soundtrack doesn’t have the up tempo, frazzled chip tune theme of the original. It has a mostly forgettable set list, with one or two songs that can even annoy a bit. Some of you may disagree, but honestly I think you’ll enjoy it more without the music playing. The sound effects themselves are fine. You can hear the falling boulders, and explosions perfectly well, and they fit the game as intended.

 

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Boulder Dash is one classic game that is perfectly suited to a portable platform. It’s the kind of game you can attempt to clear a map or two in during a lunch break, or commute. But you can also spend a weekend away, putting in a few hours into going for a high score, or solving puzzles. It’s also just a great game in its own right. This version on the 3DS is a pretty fun, and convenient iteration of the game. It’s probably not going to live up to the lofty heights of the original versions for those who grew up with them. But be that as it may this is (as Metal Jesus Rocks might say) a hidden gem in the 3DS library. It’s addictive. It’s fun. It’s Boulder Dash.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Time Soldiers Review

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While the world was getting hyped about E3 last week (and yeah, there are some cool looking games coming down the pike. I’ve been peeking in on conferences when I can.) I was hunting for some additions to my collection. I stumbled upon a Master System cartridge I’ve rarely seen outside of conventions, and it was pretty cheap so I thought “Why not?” The box art alone was worth the price of admission. But I got a fairly compelling action title in the process.

PROS: A really cool take on the classic top down run n’ gun.

CONS: Difficulty spikes, occasional collision issues.

WOAH: Giant dinosaurs with laser guns. What’s not to love?

Originally a twin-stick arcade shooter by ADK (The folks who gave us World Heroes), Time soldiers was ported by Sega to the Master System.  Before you even open the box to put the game in you’ll marvel at the artwork. It has everything a child of the 80’s was into. Dinosaurs, rocket launchers, and tanks. Once you start playing, you’ll see it lives up to the lofty promises the box advertises.

The setup is that in the distant future, a despotic, intergalactic Warlord decides to conquer the Earth. To do this, he traps many of the world’s best soldiers in different time periods throughout history. The guy basically looks like the Anti-Monitor from The Crisis On Infinite Earths, and probably has a lot of the same powers. So “Why couldn’t he just destroy the world with antimatter?” seems like a good question to ask.

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Anyway, you have to go on a quest to rescue each of these warriors from their cells throughout history. On paper, this seems pretty straightforward. Go kill bad guys, and blow up stuff in a sequential order, and roll the end credits. Time Soldiers takes inspiration from earlier run n’ guns like Ikari Warriors, and Commando. You play from a top down perspective, and do just that. Kill hundreds of enemies who come charging at you guns blazing.

But what makes this game stand out from almost every other game of its ilk, is the fact that it is never the same game twice. Time Soldiers, places each of these hostages in a different place every time, and you have to kill a boss in order to proceed. Often times, the game will not place you in the proper time period from the get go. So you’ll play the first stage, and then be sent to a new era.

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Each of the eras has a few different versions, and these will vary depending on when you’re sent to that era. So if you get sent to the Prehistoric era on stage two, it will have one version. But get sent there again a few stages later, and it will be a variant. The game will also make you fight a mini boss if you’re in the wrong era for the current hostage you’re tracking down. Defeating the mini boss will then either open another time machine (which look suspiciously like the portals from Stargate) where you’ll have to go to another time period or it will summon the actual boss.

The bosses are pretty cool. They’re not nearly as difficult as the stages are. But they’re large, and interesting sprites. They remind me a lot of the encounters of Alien Syndrome, though the patterns are much easier to learn than in that classic. But don’t be fooled by a lower difficulty. Time Soldiers only affords you two continues  on the Master System. Since you die if ANYTHING touches you, this game still isn’t an easy one. Especially since the game may send you on longer paths during certain rescues. The saving grace are some boss warps that can skip you ahead to a boss fight. On the other hand, if you aren’t powered up, taking them down with a pea shooter makes things more intimidating.

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Time Soldiers does offer a wide variety of weapons. In that respect it can feel like Contra. The thing is, these armaments aren’t permanent. After so many shots, or so many seconds they run out of ammo. So often times you’ll want to conserve them for taking down bosses, or mini bosses. You get these, power ups, and boss warps by shooting specific enemies in any given level. Basically, you’ll want to shoot as many targets as possible, because as the game goes on things will only get tougher.

Time Soldiers has a really nice look to it, and embraces the absurdity of everything. Dinosaurs shoot lasers. Ancient Romans have shields that can take a ton of bullets before going down. The mini bosses continue the weirdness, with cutesy, pink helicopters just being the tip of the iceberg. Everything is colorful, and some of the backgrounds are interactive in a sense. Going over tall grass or mud will slow you down. There are a few catchy chip tunes to thump along with the action, and the sound effects stand out against some of the other titles in the genre.

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Overall, it’s a really good action game for the Master System, and easy to recommend you add to your collection. It’s also one of the more affordable obscure games out there. It was also available on some computer formats, but as I don’t have any of those versions, I can’t really comment on them. Still, if you have a chance to check one of them out, you just may want to. If I had any major issues with this Master System version, it would be the occasionally weird collision detection. Most of the time things go the way they’re supposed to, but I did notice a few occasions where I passed through enemies I shouldn’t have, or got stuck on a piece of scenery in one game, but not on a repeat attempt. It isn’t enough to ruin the game, but it is something holding it back a little bit. Otherwise, it’s a solid addition to any collector’s library.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Commodore 64 mini-guide, and a concert I went to.

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Sorry for being a little bit late this week. I was able to see a fantastic concert for the first time in many moons. I had to take full advantage of that fact. I got to see The Dollyrots for the second time ever (They don’t get out to New England very often), and it was awesome. An area band, Chaser Eight opened for them, and had an absolute killer set. Then the Dollyrots got on stage, and crushed it too. If you’ve never heard either band, and you like rock n’ roll, do check them out. Chaser Eight is pretty great, with elements of Alt-Rock, Glam, and straight up rock. It just works. The Dollyrots on the other hand, are an amazing Pop Punk trio led by Kelly Ogden, and Luis Cabezas. They have a really great blend of the sound of the early Rock groups like The Ronettes, and 1970’s Punk bands like The Ramones. Over the years they’ve grown as musicians but the roots are still apparent. It was a great show. Both bands were very approachable, and kind. They hung out with everyone at the bar after playing for a bit, and visited with fans like family you love, but don’t get to see all of the time. It was awesome. If either comes to your area, go see them. If they’re in your town as you’re reading this, just stop reading, and go see them. What are you waiting around for? Go!

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Okay, you’re back? Good. I hope you had as great a time as I did. Anyway, lately I’ve talked a lot about the mighty Commodore 64, its library, and a great C64 peripheral. It’s one of the best platforms of all time. It was sold more than any other computer in its day, and there are a plethora of great games on it. With those, the demo scene, and even a few great bands using its sound chip, you may have thought about getting one. As a lifelong fan of the computer, I can point to some facts, and information you’ll need to know if you’re going to collect for the C64. Now this isn’t going to be the most in-depth look at the platform. There are books that go into the detailed information over the course of several hundred pages for that sort of thing. But these are some key things to look for, and some things to be aware of. There may even be a few things that intrigue a casual reader. So feel free to read on.

First of all, there were a few models. The first version is often called the bread bin model. This came in a couple of variants. The silver label variant is the earliest version, and is sought after by the most devoted Commodore fans. These have the logo in a silver style paint. The drawback with this variant is it has a 5 pin DIN connector for video, where the later models (which had a rainbow of colors next to the logo) used an 8 pin DIN connector for video. Later models also added support for S-Video which is a major jump over the stock RF cable, and switch box that all models can use. The image will be much cleaner, and clearer. Provided of course you track down one of the cables.  After the bread bin model, Commodore released the C64c, which has many of the same updates as the rainbow variant of the bread bin. It also has a couple of chip refinements, and a redesigned bezel.  It should also be noted that while you gain the S-Video, and slightly better power connector in later models, you lose the ceramics for heat reduction on chips. To remedy this, later models have a metal shield inside to draw some heat, but this still isn’t always an effective solution. In Europe some later models didn’t have a metal shield, but a metal coated cardboard one, which trapped heat in some cases.

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Aside from the revisions to the standard Commodore 64, there were alternate versions altogether. The SX-64 was one of the earliest portable computers, as it had a built-in screen, and floppy drive. These things weigh a good 20 lbs. though, so they’re not portable in the sense you’re used to.  In Japan, there was a short-lived version of the C64 called the Commodore MAX. But this cut some functionality. So it didn’t compete on the games or business end, and quickly disappeared. There was also the C64 Game System. But this cut out all of the computer aspects of the computer to play cartridge games. Unfortunately this also broke compatibility with most of the game library as by 1990, the best titles were on tape or diskette.  All three of these variants are considered collector’s items. But unless you just have to have a conversation piece in your collection, I would focus on a regular C64 instead. These alternate versions can also be expensive.

The one noteworthy alternate Commodore 64 is the Commodore 128. This doubled the amount of memory in the computer, and could run all of the C64 software. The catch is it has to be run in C64 mode, as some of the revisions to the hardware led to some incompatibility in 128 mode. But the 128 did well with business, and productivity users, as there were applications that did take advantage of the extra memory. There were two versions, the standard C128, and the C128D. The latter made the keyboard an external peripheral, and included a built-in 1571 floppy diskette drive. The C128D can get expensive as a result, as finding one with a working drive is getting harder.

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There are a couple of risks involved when getting into the platform. But these can be mitigated if you’re wise enough to do a couple of simple things. First, when you find a potential C64 purchase, confirm it is working. If it’s a store, they should be willing to hook it up, and confirm it’s operational. Second, make certain the Power Supply Unit not only works, but is in great shape. The PSU actually has two rails inside. One powers the motherboard, and most of the system, while the other powers the sound chip. As a means to control costs, it is encased in a resin material. However there’s a chance even a working PSU can overheat. Depending on the problem, a bad PSU can fry components inside the computer. That’s why it’s imperative you get a plug-in as pristine condition as possible. You’ll want to make sure it sits out in the open where heat can escape, and if you’re paranoid, you can always have a small desk fan blowing on it. Also keep in mind some of the later bread bin releases may have heat issues from the cost reduced RF shield. These are mostly in PAL territory releases. But again, keeping things cool can help mitigate a problem.

With that out-of-the-way, you’ll want to start gaming. But what else will you need? This depends a bit on what territory you’re in, and whether or not you plan to do any importing. Since I’m in the US, I’ll focus on that, but I’ll touch a bit on other parts of the world in a bit. When the C64 arrived on the scene, games for it started out on cartridge. They had about as much space as the ones found on consoles that were out at the time. Not every user had an external drive right away either, so it made sense for publishers to put games on cartridges. Some of the earliest software also came on cartridges, and this even includes diagnostic software, which may or may not work depending on the hardware issue. If applicable you can turn on the computer with a diagnostic cartridge, and it will let you run simple tests to determine if a chip has gone bad.  But this isn’t always a sure thing, since some hardware failures won’t give you anything other than the blackness of space on your screen. More on that later.

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So a lot of the earliest stuff was out on cartridge. Activision ported many of its console games to the C64 including H.E.R.O., Beamrider, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, and River Raid. But there were a number of great games on cartridge. Eventually however, publishers found alternatives that gave developers more space at a lower cost. The first of these were cassette tapes. Games, and other programs could be published on audio cassettes. These were also cheap, and so many titles started being released on cassette.

In order to run these programs you’ll need a datasette drive. These are basically old school cassette decks. If you want an in-depth look at how these worked, I highly recommend this video from the 8-Bit Guy. In European territories this is the format nearly all of the biggest titles came on, due to the lower production costs. There is one thing for newcomers to be aware of though, and that’s long load times. A lot of larger games on tape can take minutes to load. In the grand scheme of things it isn’t that big a deal. Even today’s console games can take eons to load if you’re playing them off disc, rather than installing them. Still, if you’re short on patience, you’ll need to learn to gather some if you need to run a game off of cassette.

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In North America, prices of writable media began to fall after a while though, and so many games began the move to 5.25″ Floppy Diskettes. these eliminated the storage concerns for a long time. When they cropped up again, many developers simply made games that took multiple disks to get through. To play these games you’ll need a 1541 or a 1541-II floppy diskette drive. There were a few aftermarket drives as well like The Enhancer 2000. In the USA, nearly every notable game came on floppy diskette. Even games that were previously released on cartridge or cassette tape. Most games released on floppy take a lot less time to load over cassette releases. However they’re not quite as fast as one would hope due to a slow port speed. To help with this, there are a number of Fast Loader cartridges you can get. These take some of the load off, and do shave some time off of loading. Again, 8-Bit Guy has a great video on the specifics of how this worked that I won’t go into here. Just know, that an Epyx Fast Load cartridge, or equivalent is something you want if you’re going to play games on Floppy Diskettes.

Once you have all of those in order, you’ll probably want to look into controllers. Most games took advantage of joysticks, though many also had keyboard binds. Almost any controller with a DB9 connector will fit the ports. Atari 2600 joysticks, Sega Genesis pads, and so on. However, it is NOT recommended you use a Sega Genesis pad, because the Sega Genesis pad draws more power than the controller ports need, so there is the chance you can blow a controller port in the process. So it’s best to stick to controllers built with either the C64, or Atari 2600 in mind. My controller of choice is the Slik Stik by Suncom. But there are no shortage of joystick options. Note that some games still utilized two button schemes, at a time when nearly all controllers were one button controllers. The work around most developers went with, was using the space bar.  Depending on the title it may take a little getting used to. In slower paced games it’s rarely a problem, in action games, you’ll want the joystick right in front of the computer so you can easily press the space bar when you need to.

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Now the thing to remember is, this is still a computer platform. So you can do more than game on it. In fact if you’re willing to learn the Commodore variant of BASIC, you can code your own homebrew games for the machine. Which a lot of people did. So you may even have fun tracking down old, defunct Commodore 64 themed magazines. Some of them have been archived like the entire run of Ahoy!. Not only do you get the sensation you feel when looking at an old Nintendo Power, you get programs. Long before the advent of getting a CD full of demos with your game magazine, computer magazines had program articles. You could type in these programs, save them to a diskette, and run them whenever you wanted. Many of them were written entirely in BASIC, although some were written in machine language, and you typed them into a HEX editor program. But you could save them to diskette! Some of these were really good too, like Mystery At Mycroft Mews, where you had to go around a town as detectives, solve murders, and bring the right suspect to trial.

Aside from gaming, there are a wealth of old productivity, and business programs you can find, but honestly, they’re not really going to be much value beyond the history. It is nice to see the original Print Shop in action, or some of the word processors of the time. But you’re probably not going to send your masterpiece novel to a literary agent on a 5.25″ Floppy these days. Still, you can still find old dot matrix printers, and the ribbons though they’re getting scarce.

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But in the more interesting range you can find things like the Koala pad, which is one of the earliest graphics tablets. You could draw with a stylus, and save your art to diskette. There were a bunch of clones that came afterward. But if you draw on a modern Wacom graphics tablet, and wonder where the earliest versions of the tech came from, their infancy took place on 8-bit home computers. You can also find the original 300 baud modems, that let users connect to services like Quantum Link back then (LazyGameReviews did a wonderful video on that service.) But these days, there are homebrew network cards, and browsers tinkerers can invest in.

One of the craziest things I have in my collection is the Hearsay 1000. A cartridge, and software combo that reads whatever you type, back to you. In a kind of creepy robot voice. The software is far from perfect, it doesn’t account for pronunciation, so it can only read things as they are spelled. So if you type in the name “Barbara” it will say it back as “Bar-Bar-A”. But this is where stuff like Dragon Naturally Speaking got its start. Building off of this early tech, or properly doing what it was trying to. If you find a Hearsay 1000, don’t use it while playing games with voice samples. It will yell “HEARSAY ONE THOUSAND!”, and then crash the computer. Then you’ll have to turn it off, disconnect the module, and turn it back on. Then load your game again. Considering you’re going to wait a while for Ghostbusters to load again, best to know that up front.

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Of course not too long ago, I reviewed the SD2EIC. This is a must own peripheral because you can make disk images, or download images of stuff you own to an SD Card. It’s also great if you do happen to have old disks with personal files on them, and want to save those along with your other programs. Plus the load times, are dramatically cut down.

One also needs to take into account the difference between PAL, and NTSC territories If they plan on importing. A lot of really great games including some of the best were exclusive to Europe. While most of these are playable on a North American C64, the speed differences can often lead to all kinds of glitches. Random characters popping up, graphics showing up in grayscale rather than in color, some extreme cases will involve lock ups, and crashes. One can convert their computer via modifying it, but this isn’t recommended if you don’t know your way around altering a circuit board. My advice is to either deal with the glitches if you import a game or follow the purist. Purists will import a PAL C64, peripherals, and either a PAL monitor or else using a scaler with their HDTV to run a native 50 hz signal from the computer. You’ll also want a power converter as the electrical outlets, and standards are different. If you’re in a PAL territory, and you want some of the NTSC exclusives, you’ll see similar issues. So again, purists will want to import an NTSC setup, and use a power converter.

While some of this may get a little complicated, it is worth the plunge. Once you have a fully functional C64 setup, there really isn’t anything else like it.  The unique sound of its sound chip (known as the SID) is popular to this day. The wide, and varied library gets you a large variety of original games, multi platform games, and arcade ports. As is the case with every platform you’ll find a lot of good games, some truly great games, and a fair number of bad ones. I highly recommend visiting Lemon64 for its wealth of information, and its game archive. Plus they have a very helpful community if you do run into issues. Thanks to them I discovered a wonderful hobbyist who does repairs, and builds a lot of high quality homebrew accessories, and power supplies. When my C64c gave me a dreaded Black Screen Of Death last month I got in contact with Ray Carlsen, After some back, and forth messaging I ended up sending him the machine. Having some background in PC repairs, and upgrades I had taken it apart, checked the motherboard, found no bad capacitors. The fuse was intact, and working. I didn’t see any corrosion on chips. But I had no way to test them, and I was stumped. Well he was able to determine I had a minor issue with my power connector, and that my PSU was on its way out. He installed a breaker to prevent the components from frying from a bad PSU. I also ordered one of his homebrew PSUs. When the computer came back, not only was everything working the way it is supposed to, but he somehow got it looking much newer than when I had sent it in. Now he isn’t a traditional business, so he doesn’t do bulk jobs. Don’t go looking to send him 50 broken C64 computers. That isn’t what he is about. But he’ll charge you a fair price to fix a single machine, and take a look at some of his PSU models. With the originals drying up, it can’t hurt to have a spare.

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The Commodore 64 may have been a home computer, but it was one of the most important platforms in video game history. It’s where many games went after the infamous crash in North America, and even after the rise of the NES it still retained a viable market share. In Europe it was also a major contender throughout the 80’s, and 90’s. Although there are some things to be aware of if you want to begin collecting for one, it can be a rewarding experience. Prices fluctuate constantly, but expect to spend between $50 – $150 for a working model with a good PSU. With that alone, you’ll be set for any cartridge games. But chances are you’ll want some of the higher profile releases. A 1541 Floppy drive will set you back about $50. There are deals out there to be had, but many of the cheap ones aren’t tested, so you may be buying a worn out drive. On the budget end though, Datasette drives are fairly inexpensive. So keep an eye out for one of those.

Then, you’ll be ready to pick up some C64 games! Just like on retro consoles, some games are cheap, and common. Some are rare, and expensive. A lot of times you can make out well, by buying lots. A lot of games don’t require anything beyond a floppy diskette, cartridge or cassette. But there are games that have manual protection. So do some research on a title before you buy it. For example, you’ll want to look for complete copies of certain RPGs as they require a code wheel, or manual as a means of copy protection. (IE: Type in the first word in the third paragraph on page 13.) Plus it’s nice to have the manuals, and keyboard overlays for flight sims, RPGs, or point, and click adventure games. Action genres usually didn’t have these vast control schemes requiring hot keys. But a handful did use manual protection so make sure the game you’re interested in isn’t one of them if you’re looking at a loose copy.

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Also be sure to keep your disk based games in sleeves when you’re not using them, and don’t let them get too hot or cold. Definitely keep them away from magnets, as that will corrupt the disk, and destroy your game. It was a lesson we children learned quickly back when home computers were first gaining prominence.  Finally, the Commodore 64, and other computers of the era were powered by variants of Microsoft BASIC. So you’ll need to know a few basic (Ha, ha!) commands. The most important being LOAD”*”,8,1 which for all intents, and purposes tells the disk drive to load the first file on a disk (Usually the executable) into memory. Then when the computer says ‘READY” you can simply type “RUN”, press RETURN, and fire up your game.

That should about do it this time. But keep in mind how many great things the retro games, and computing scene keeps pumping out for the mighty C64. Here’s hoping the new motherboards, network cards, card readers, and even homebrew games continue preserving one of gaming’s most iconic platforms.

 

 

Jumpman Review

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You wouldn’t know it at face value, but you’re on a mission to defuse bombs on another world. A world of bombs, killer robots, and a lethal pixel. In addition to a host of other horrific adversaries. It all sounds like a side scrolling action platformer or run ‘n gun. But you’d be wrong. Jumpman is one of the strangest, yet greatest puzzle games ever made. Debuting on the Atari 8-bit family of computers, it appeared on the Commodore 64 soon after, along with the IBM PC, and Apple II.

PROS: Excellent gameplay. Fun animation. Great musical numbers.

CONS: Bland graphics.

APOGEE: The Duke Nukem publisher felt the ire of Epyx.

Jumpman may seem a bit esoteric today, but there was a time when he was almost as popular as Bomberman. That’s because he starred in two of the most fun arcade puzzle games to ever grace a computer screen. As I mentioned at the start, the storyline of the game doesn’t accurately describe what is going on at face value. You really have to start playing the game before you realize that it does.

The goal of Jumpman is easy to grasp. Defuse all of the bombs in the level before losing all of your lives for big points. If you manage to do this, you’ll move onto the next level. You’ll also get bonus points for having more Jumpmen in reserve. So a high performance level is key. Created by Randy Glover, and released by Epyx, there is a wonderful use of the easy to learn, lifetime to master principles behind many great games.

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The game eases you in, with a couple of pretty simple to understand levels. You’ll go about your goal of defusing bombs, and slowly notice changes to a given stage. Pieces of scenery disappear, creating new gaps to jump over. A floating pixel will chase you down, and kill you if you get in its line of sight. But the obstacles only increase as you complete levels. It isn’t long before you see killer robots that change position every time you defuse a bomb. Or a plethora of bombs falling from the sky. Or flying saucers. Or rabid bats. Sometimes the challenges aren’t adversaries. Sometimes they’re things like moving ladders or other scenery.

Every one of these attempts to impede you can be overcome with enough practice. Over time, you begin to recognize patterns, and figure out what you’re supposed to do. But it doesn’t become a cakewalk, because actually doing what you’re supposed to still requires dexterity. When you clear a level, you’ll hear one of a multitude of cheery carnival tunes. These go along with the circus-like feel of the game’s introduction animation.

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Jumpman gives you nine lives to get through the stages. You can choose from several difficulty settings which will start at a stage where the appropriate difficulty jump occurs. You can also select Grand Loop which does all 30 levels in a row. Or you can choose the Randomizer, which plays the levels in a random order. Beyond that, you can also choose a game speed. The center value of 4 will run the game at the standard speed. The max speed of 8 is probably too fast for all but the most devoted player, and the minimum speed of 1 makes the game exceptionally slow. The speed setting is a nice option though because it can make the game a bit more interesting. The game can also be played by up to four players alternating turns.

Visually, Jumpman isn’t much to look at.  stages are made of simple shapes, and a handful of colors. Jumpman himself, is little more than a stick figure. But the gameplay in Jumpman is amazing. Moving about the levels is very smooth, and the controls are tight. One interesting thing the game does is allow Jumpman to climb anything he touches. If you go for a jump, and your hand nabs part of the scenery, you’ll climb it! There are also some cool navigational variables thrown in, in the form of ropes. Green ropes can only be climbed up, while blue ropes can only be climbed down. Between this, and the other mechanics introduced through enemy character types Jumpman becomes surprisingly deep for such a simple game.

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There are a few minor differences between the different versions of Jumpman. The original Atari 400/800 version features some really slick transition animations between levels as you clear them. It also has a pretty cool stage destruction sequence when you run out of lives, and get a Game Over.  The Commodore 64 version has a little bit more detail in the graphics department. It gives our hero a shirt, and pants through some simple colors. The music sounds a tiny bit better too. It is missing the stage transitions, and if you lose you don’t see the level explode. Instead, you get a harmonious musical number as the backgrounds, and characters slowly become the same color.

Over on the Apple II, you won’t see the transitions. Visually, it’s somewhere between the Atari, and Commodore computers. It has the Commodore’s background colors, but the Atari’s blank Jumpman. The IBM PC port was outsourced to another developer. It pretty much plays the same as the other versions although the terrible PC speaker sound, and CGA color scheme make it the worst in terms of visuals, and sound.

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Jumpman was also followed up by Jumpman Junior, which is really a companion version of the game. It was made for Commodore 64, and Atari 8-bit users who didn’t have a 5.25″ Floppy drive. Being a cartridge game makes it one of the more sought after games for collectors. It’s pretty much exactly the same game as Jumpman, except it has only 12 stages. At the time cartridges didn’t have as much storage capacity as the floppies, and cassettes did. Still, for many retro fans,  it isn’t the full Jumpman experience unless you have both games. It was never available for other computer formats, although it was ported to the Colecovision.

Long after Randy Glover left the game industry, A programmer named Dave Sharpless ported the game, and it’s expandalone to MS-DOS under the title Jumpman Lives! The game was published by Apogee in 1991. The thing is, that while Epyx had long been a shell of its former self, it was still around. The remake caught the ire of Epyx, and Apogee would cease selling it immediately. Epyx wouldn’t be around much longer though, after getting out of bankruptcy, and focusing on Atari Lynx development the company was sold off, and dissolved.  Jumpman Lives! Is a fairly rare computer game as a result.

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In the end, Jumpman, and Jumpman Jr. are games that really deserve more recognition than they get. At least when compared with other retro games. Things may look more like a carnival than a space station, and the bombs may look more like flowers. But once you get past the rudimentary look of everything you’ll be engrossed in one of the most addictive puzzlers of all time. If you can find the original floppy disk, the cartridge based companion edition, or even the unlicensed, unofficial, Apogee remake, give it a go. Jumpman Junior was also included in the C64 DTV, as well as the recent Colecovision Flashback by AtGames. So if you don’t have one of these old computers or consoles, there are other legitimate ways to add this masterful game to your collection in some capacity.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

SD2EIC Drive Review

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It’s no secret I’m a huge Commodore fan. As a child in the 80’s, I started gaming on the seminal Atari 2600. It’s a timeless system for many reasons, and I still fire it up a lot today. But when my father came home with a Commodore 64 bread bin it quickly became the de facto platform in our household. When the company redesigned the computer, and sold a cheaper junior model, my father bought one, and donated the old one to relatives. But from the moment I saw Forbidden Forest running off a cassette tape the first time, I was hooked.

Through the years I played tons of awesome games on it. It wasn’t until I was a Junior in High School that we would move to a modern MS-DOS X86 PC. Because that is how versatile the King of 8-bit computers was. The C64 launched in 1983, and wasn’t discontinued until 1994 when the company went out of business. It’s fondly remembered as a games machine, because it’s where many companies went during the console market crash, and where many indies that became today’s majors got their start.

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It was a big deal here in North America, but it was even bigger in Europe. There are countless games that never officially made it Stateside.  So the platform is also an importer’s dream. Provided of course you’re willing to wade through the landmine of PAL Vs. NTSC concerns.

But whether you’re a North American or European Commodore 64 owner, there’s no denying that over time some of our floppies, and cassettes are slowly wearing out. A lot of our disk drives, and datasette drives are going kaput. With only so many in the wild, it’s going to get harder, and harder to rebuild our beloved collections. But fear not! Thanks to The Future Was 8-bit there is a way to keep the memory alive, on the original hardware.

PROS: An SD Card reader that emulates Floppy, and Cassette drives exceptionally well!

CONS: Not quite everything is compatible.

BUT: Far more than enough is compatible.

At first glance, the SD2EIC just looks like an SD card reader in a cute 1541 floppy drive shaped casing. But it’s no ordinary SD card reader!  This device emulates an actual 1541, and datasette environment. It plugs into either the tape drive slot or the floppy drive slot (depending on the version you order), and the serial DB port.  From here you can put in an SD card with your Commodore 64 program files , and run them natively on the computer!

This can be done a few ways, you can download images (assuming you own the programs in question), or if you have the means, you can back up your files to a computer, and then transfer them to a card.  You can also migrate disk images from the 1541 floppy drive to the SD2EIC. This is a little bit more involved, since you’ll need a couple of extra cables, and you’ll need to find a Compression software that works with the platform. Once you’re set up though, you will be so glad you have one of these.

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The device utilizes a file browser software file you can download which lets you go through a DOS like directory system. This makes it easy for you to organize files, and set them up in an order you feel most comfortable with. The documentation included with the SD2EIC gives you a pretty detailed set of instructions on using it. For basic file browsing though, it is pretty straight forward. You can navigate using either the CRSR Up/Down key, or a joystick in port two. If you don’t feel comfortable configuring the software, you can order a preconfigured card with it. The card has the file browser, and a bunch of programs on it.

If that weren’t enough, the device also has three buttons on it which are used when using programs that require multiple disks. This is handy when running a game or other program, that would normally involve flipping a diskette over, or putting in the next diskette when prompted. Here you have forward, backward, and reset buttons which you can press in these situations. Two of the buttons also act as the power, and load/save LEDs on the 1541 floppy drive. It’s really cool, and a nice touch to an already great experience.

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The SD2EIC can read all kinds of C64 file images. It can run D64, T64 files as well as PRG files. Again, it can also run them sequentially. But the device can also save files. This makes the unit very attractive to budding BASIC programmers. If you know your way around code, you can use this in lieu of a floppy diskette drive. This is a great way to save your projects without fear of a 1541 drive dying, or your diskette wearing out, and your data going with it. Plus even a relatively small SD card can house thousands of programs, and files due to the small file sizes on a typical 5.25″ Floppy Diskette. It’s compatible with both NTSC, and PAL machines too, though if you put PAL files on your card, and run it on an NTSC machine you’ll likely experience the same random glitches, video issues, or occasional crashes you would if you were to run an imported game on floppy.

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One of the things that really impressed me was the build quality. Most commercial SD card readers, even ones made by big industry names can be flimsy. The SD2EIC I received is superb. It’s built with plastic made by recycling broken Commodore 64, and 128 computer cases. It’s sturdy, and even the cabling feels secure. It isn’t something you can be careless with, but it can withstand shuffling around your set up.

There are a handful of minor issues with the drive. The first is that you do not want to accidentally grab the wrong controller if you have two of them plugged in. Doing so will exit you out of the program, and drop you back to the BASIC prompt. The second is that the SD2EIC doesn’t emulate a 1541 drive at 100%. That’s because the 1541 floppy drive is powered by another MOS 6502 CPU just like the stock Commodore 64 computer. So there are a handful of programs that won’t work due to being written in a way that utilizes the 1541 floppy drive in a specific way.

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Nevertheless, I can still tell you that the SD2EIC is a must own peripheral for any Commodore 64 collector. The wealth of pros outweigh the cons of a few incompatible programs out there. Especially when you consider just how versatile it is. The ability to run backup images alone, is something that should put this on your radar. With 5.25″ diskettes drying up, breaking down, and working 1541 drives dying from old age, this is a very welcome peripheral for preservation. Plus, budding indie developers have a means for their BASIC, and Assembly language projects to be stored on a modern format.

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It’s amazing how many wonderful homebrew products keep coming out for this legendary machine. Over the last three decades there have been Ethernet cards, a web browser, and even a new motherboard! But this drive is going to be more, and more sought after as time goes on. And, as these are made from recycled Commodore computers, you may want to get one before they dry up. It is truly a must own peripheral for anyone interested in Commodore.

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Now it should be noted there are other ways to get the SD2EIC. You can buy the circuit board, and daughter board from NKC Electronics. It’s nice if you’re good at assembling your own casings, and doing your own electronics assembly, or repair. But going with this specific one makes things very convenient. Plus the use of recycled computers to make the attractive casing is a nice touch that keeps them out of the landfill. I know I’m repeating myself, but it’s true. TheFutureWas8Bit has really outdone themselves with this one. Whether you’re a long time fan, or new to Commodore. Get yourself an SD2EIC from them. You won’t be sorry. Even the care put into the shipping packaging will astound you.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Beach Head II: The Dictator Strikes Back Review

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These days, there are all kinds of wonderful death match experiences. From Rise Of The Triad onward, First-person shooters have given players hours of competitive multiplayer. But back in the golden age, not as many games did this. Oh sure, there was the quest for the high score. However, many games had you on the same side, or alternating turns while competing for points. But when Beach Head came out it had a novel idea. Combining several games resulting in a really fun campaign. The sequel took that idea on step further.

PROS: Well crafted. As fun today, as it was when it came out years ago.

CONS: Last stage can go on too long between two great players.

MEDIC: The voice samples are some of the most memorable quips in a video game.

Beach Head II is one of the best competitive multiplayer games ever made. Released two years after the original game, it made one little change to its formula. This completely changed the dynamics of the game in this sequel. Instead of alternating turns, this game casts one player as the heroic army, and the other player as the dictator’s evil forces. The core concept is intact. There are a set number of scenes, each acting as its own arcade style game. Once that game is played, things move onto the next game, and so on. This tapestry of games, makes for an overall campaign, and storyline. Beach Head takes place during World War II. But the setting in this sequel is more contemporary.

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The first stage is an invasion. Player one air drops a squadron onto the shore, and from here they have to storm the Bastille. Player two has to do everything in their power to keep the heroes from getting inside, by using a giant turret. As the second player fires down upon the walls, the first player has to move combatants one by one, to the entrance. They can scale walls, or run down toward the next set. If they get to the bottom, they’ll succeed.  The more combatants they can get down to the bottom the better prepared for the following stage. This is also the moment you’ll see something else that makes the game memorable. This is one of the earliest computer games that implemented voice samples.

When one of the allied combatants get shot, it plays one of four samples. These are looped so the deaths will vocalize the same pattern of phrases. Even still, these are pretty great for the time, and are still pretty memorable. There are other samples that play in later stages too. Now one may think the odds are against the allied forces, and they are. But the heroes can throw grenades at the dictator’s turret. A successful throw will destroy it for big points, and the soldier will make it in, as a replacement turret spawns in.

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Stage two sees the allies taking control of the turret, and firing into the dictator’s military installation. Here the object is to provide prisoners cover as they try to shuffle along, and escape. The person playing dictator, can summon tanks, combat jeeps, a bomb expert to set traps, and even a guy on a roof dropping rocks onto the prisoner. Points are awarded to the allies for every successful rescue, while the dictator gets points for successfully murdering prisoners.

The third stage is a helicopter escape mission. The allied player loads the chopper with liberated soldiers, and attempts to get away. It’s a shmup level, but the dictator can control the many vehicles in an attempt to shoot down the chopper. If they’re successful the round starts again, with the allies trying to shuttle out any remaining prisoners. Obviously the allies get huge bonus points if they can successfully dodge all of the dictator’s assaults.

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The final stage sees the leader of the allies facing off against the dictator himself. Each on a pier facing each other. They throw knives at each other. After landing a few hits the victor will see their opponent fall into the sea. This battle goes on for ten matches. This is where the game’s one major flaw comes into play. The final battle can go on far too long. Once you have two evenly matched players, they can easily duck out, sidestep, and otherwise dodge dagger throws. A 30 minute match up of fun, can quickly become a several hour affair due to the last battle. In hindsight Access Software should have made this a two out of three falls match.

Be that as it may, the final battle is still a lot of fun thanks in part to the nice animation, and splendid sound samples. Hearing the dictator exclaim “YOU CAN’T HURT ME!” is a pretty rewarding experience. Once all of the modes are done, the final score is tallied letting you know which army was victorious.

Aside from the voice samples, the sound effects are really good. Explosions, gun fire, and other sounds are all a cut above most other games of the time. There is also a really nice chip tune of the US Marines theme song. Visually the game still holds up pretty nicely. The sprites all have a great use of shading techniques to portray details. And while not every thing is graphically impressive, it does an awful lot, with a little.

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Now in addition to the full on campaign, you can play the individual stages instead. This is nice if you really enjoy a specific level more than the other ones. But for most who go back, and play this one, going through the campaign together is really what makes things fun. One can also play through the game on their own as the allies. There are three difficulty levels, and the higher you go the more punishing it is. The highest difficulty is notoriously difficult, as the computer will rarely make a mistake. If you have nobody to play it with, it’s a fun ride. But the real entertainment comes from competing with a friend. I spent many Saturdays, and afternoons playing this with my brother, and friends from school back in the 80’s. It was one of the most fun multiplayer experiences on the Commodore 64.

But Beach Head II was also published on other computers of the time. If you collect for the Apple II or Atari 400/800 line, you can also find this game for those platforms. If you happen to live in Europe, you can also find versions for the Amstrad CPC, and the ZX Spectrum. No matter how you play it though, this is one awesome head to head game worth picking up if you have the chance.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Alien Syndrome Review

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Throughout the 1980’s Sega was making its mark in arcades. It pushed what was possible in racing games, and rail shooters with Outrun, Space Harrier, and After Burner. It gave us the awesome Golden Axe, and the visually impressive Altered Beast. Unsurprisingly many of these games were ported to its own consoles, the Master System, and the Genesis. But there is one of their IPs that came, and went in this period. Something so familiar, and so different. Something so difficult, and yet addictive. I’m talking about Alien Syndrome.

PROS: Great visuals, atmosphere, music, and control (most versions).

CONS: Obscenely difficult. Dark Souls difficult. In deep space.

ALIENS: One of many blockbuster influences that can be seen here.

At its core, Alien Syndrome seems like a typical overhead shooter. You move either Ricky or Mary, depending on which player you are. As you go along, you kill various creatures for big points. But it isn’t so simple. Where previous overhead run n’ guns like Commando, or Ikari Warriors had you kill enemies, and charge to the end of a linear level, this doesn’t. Alien Syndrome is unrelenting about its premise. Your mission isn’t a simple matter of killing things, and getting to the end. Each stage is a ship, and on each of these ships are a number of survivors you have to rescue. Not only do you have to rescue these survivors, (who are stuck in cocoons the way the ones in Aliens were portrayed) you’re timed. Because each ship has initiated a self-destruct sequence a la Captain Kirk.

 

This is to ensure that the menacing invaders cannot make it to Earth in the event you fail your mission. Also because each stage is a ship, there are no straight runs to the north. Instead, each of the stages is a maze, with its own distinct layout. So you have to explore every last nook, and cranny looking for survivors. The survivors are represented by a row of heads. As you rescue them, they’re depleted from the bar. If things get tough, or confusing (which they will) each of the ships have a few maps. Finding these on the wall will pull up a map on  the screen. On the map are flashing pixels, that represent the survivors.

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Once you find all of the hostages, the game will prompt you to get to the exit so you can escape. But in each of the airlocks is a boss alien. These are large, and diverse. Each of them is imposing. Each of them has a powerful attack, and the later bosses employ some very tricky patterns. The bosses all look really cool too. For a title that has fallen into obscurity, it has some of the most memorable bosses in arcade game history. Even the very first boss, is the sort of thing you’ll wish were made into an action figure or statue. These designs are that good.

But, run n’ gun games are often only as exciting as their weaponry, and enemies. Alien Syndrome has a great many of each. Again, taking influence from the Alien movies, there are flame throwers, fire-ball guns, and grenade launchers. But there are others, like the blaster that shoots laser beams like the Imperial blasters in Star Wars. There are also temporary shields, and chess pieces you can find for points.

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How do you get these things? There are cubby holes on walls, marked with the appropriate letter for the weapon. For example L is the laser. The enemies are also varied throughout the game. In earlier stages you’ll fight brain slug creatures, but you’ll see everything from aliens to creatures that shoot their eyes as projectiles. Quite honestly, everything on display is really cool. Every ship has its own decor. So you won’t see a lot of the same tiles in subsequent levels. Some of the ships are what you would expect to see in a space-themed game. Steel floors, technical circuitry patterns for walls, and other touches. But other stages are completely alien (no pun intended.). Some ships seem like they’re made of flesh, others are like stone. Many of the stages have some really cool parallax scrolling effects on floors to represent pits or other pitfalls. And fall you will if you walk over them.

Alien Syndrome is quite the challenge too, because there isn’t a single moment where you aren’t attacked by a horde of aliens. You have to be quick on the draw, as well as quick to react. Dodging projectiles, enemy creatures, while trying to rescue people at the same time. The difficulty especially ramps up after the first stage, and the bosses will often hand you your own behind on a silver platter. There are also no continues, making your performance all the more important. It really does give you the visceral action of the genre, while providing other challenges.

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There are many ways to play Alien Syndrome as it was ported to a lot of platforms. Interestingly enough, the ports to Sega’s own Master System, and Game Gear resulted to almost entirely new games. The scrolling is gone. Instead things work on an almost flip-screen mechanic, only scrolling when reaching the end of the screen in a Castlevania door style transition. The other major changes are almost entirely different maps, and new bosses. The core concept is the same, and it retains the songs from the arcade machine. But these changes make for arguably the worst version of the game. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t play Alien Syndrome on the Master System. It is still a pretty good iteration. It’s brisk. It gives you the same style of gameplay in a new, and unexpected way. Rather, it isn’t the best option for those looking for a replicated experience on a retro console. If you do pick this one up though, you’ll want something other than the Master System Control Pad, because the sometimes mushy d-pad will have you accidentally walking into an alien, or projectile. I recommend the Sega Control Stick. It just seems more responsive in this game. For whatever reason, this game won’t see a Genesis controller properly, so the Sega Control Stick is the next best thing.

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The other two major versions I happen to own ate the Unlicensed Tengen NES port, and the Commodore 64 port. Both of these are pretty good, getting the stage layouts, enemy types, and overall feel pretty nicely. The Commodore 64 version fares especially well though, as it’s the most responsive version I own. Everything is fast, and smooth most of the time. While there can be a bit of slowdown when an awful lot is going on, it still performs better than the NES version overall. The C64 doesn’t have as large a color palette as the NES, but it somehow gets closer to the arcade experience in terms of visuals. The C64 also has the arcade cabinet’s animated attract mode, and a really good original soundtrack. It’s another example of the staying power of the computer’s SID sound chip.

But Tengen’s NES port is no slouch either. It still looks pretty good most of the time, and even manages to add some pretty cool cinema screens to amp up the experience. I should also note that while the C64 has the better soundtrack, the NES version also tries to replicate the arcade’s songs rather than experiment with them, or add new ones. While it isn’t as responsive or quite as fluid as the C64 version, it is the only one of the three to offer continues. On the C64, and SMS you’ll need to clear the game on a handful of lives. For those out there who don’t own a vintage computer, but you have an NES, and a SMS it’s a pretty close race. For authenticity the NES port wins, but the SMS version looks a bit nicer.

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Of course, all of this is moot if you have Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the Xbox 360 or PS3 though. Because the arcade ROM was included in the compilation. You’ll have a nearly 1:1 experience at that point. Be that as it may, most of the home ports all offer a pretty great send up of the original. Alien Syndrome also appeared on the Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, ZX Spectrum, Sharp X68000, MSX computers as well as MS-DOS.

It’s a shame this IP has lied so dormant over the years, aside from a brief, largely ignored game on the PSP, and Wii that played nothing like the original. Alien Syndrome is a fun, if difficult run n’ gun. If you have any of the platforms it appeared on, you owe it to yourself to track down a copy. If you’re blessed to live near an arcade that has a working cabinet, do yourself a service, and put in a few quarters. With its challenge, memorable characters, and insane bosses, Alien Syndrome is one arcade classic you’ll never want to forget.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Toy Bizarre Review

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As we get closer to Christmas, this year I’ve found myself going through my library, and replaying old games. Part of this is due to nostalgia. The years of childhood Christmas memories. Gaming with friends, and family. It’s great being able to experience some of this old stuff in my collection, and it’s also great being able to share those experiences with others. Seeing how we are in the holiday season, we’re looking at a holiday themed game.

PROS: Frantic, and enjoyable.

CONS: Long load times.

NEAR EXCLUSIVE: Only saw release on two computer platforms.

Toy Bizarre lives up to its namesake. It centers around toys, and it’s bizarre. The game takes place in a toy factory where the automation has gone awry, creating killer toys. If the box art is any indication, it also happens to be Santa’s workshop. So Toy Bizarre also appears to have a bit of Silent Night Deadly Night embedded inside.

Each level of the factory is a single screen affair, and right away you’ll notice the gameplay is a little bit reminiscent of Nintendo’s Mario Bros. But only slightly so. In Mario Bros. You would punch floors from below creatures to knock them upside down so you could then bump them off the screen for points. Here, you’ll have floor layouts, and entrances similar to the ones in Nintendo’s platformer, and there’s some bumping things off-screen for points. But there’s a lot more going on than that.

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One major thing you’ll find are little valves throughout the level. If left unattended they eventually inflate balloons. If you don’t pop the balloons in time they will float to the top of the screen, and pop. If you let the balloons pop on their own the explosion will summon different kinds of toys. Touching these toys is fatal. In order to remedy that you have to get them to land on specific surfaces. While they’re on these surfaces, you can quickly jump to a switch that will temporarily deactivate the toys, so you can destroy them. Each level has a certain number of balloons to be destroyed while the punch clock winds down. The faster you can do this, the more time you have left at the end, which also gives you more points.

One strategy a lot of people will also go for on their quest for a high score is to shut off valves. This is an excellent strategy to employ. However there is yet another hurdle the factory throws at you. Remember those cheap wind up walker toys we’ve all had at one time or another as children? You know the type. They have a key or knob sticking out of their back, you twist it as far to the right as it can go, then set it down. The toy then walks around until it either falls off of a table, or collapses on itself.

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Well imagine if there were a giant, life-sized, killer toy android that worked that way. Because apparently, Santa Claus invested in one of them in his toy factory. This automation has also gotten the HAL 9000 virus, and decided that you need to die for it to complete its mission. Not only do you have to avoid this thing at all costs, The android will turn on any valves you’ve previously shut off, allowing for more balloons, more killer toys, and less time on the clock. There are even bonus stages called Safety Checks where you have to shut off all of the valves before the android can turn them back on. And the android will manage to get a couple of then on. In later safety checks you’ll sometimes contend with multiple androids.

If all of that sounds confusing, fear not. It becomes easy to understand once you’ve played the game for a few minutes. Once you understand it, you have yourself a very addictive, and entertaining holiday puzzle-platformer. But it gets better! Because every stage has a different layout from the last. Where in Mario Bros. the only deviation were new enemies to figure out how to defeat, in Toy Bizarre you have to also learn maps.

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One saving grace are power ups called Coffee Breaks, where you literally grab a cup of coffee, and everything stops. During the coffee break you’re basically invincible, and you have a few quick seconds to clear everything before the balloons, toys, and evil androids get back to work. If you’re good enough at Toy Bizarre you can start to loop stages. Again, being an arcade puzzle-platformer you’re not in pursuit of an ending, but a high score.

The game was designed by Mark Turmell who did a number of computer games for Activision. One of the best being Fast Tracks, which I’ll have to get around to doing a review for. But Toy Bizarre is another Activision game from the era, that isn’t as fondly remembered as the heavy hitters they put out on the Atari 2600, and other platforms of the time. Which is a shame, because almost everything about the game is spot on. It holds up in almost every way. The hit detection is great. You’ll rarely have a moment where you hit an enemy, and can’t believe it was a possibility. Due to the kind of game it is, later stages do tend to put in more, and more obstacles that the majority of players find difficult to overcome. But it doesn’t feel like your deaths are cheap.

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And while visually one could argue it doesn’t look as nice as Mario Bros., one can’t deny it is a cut above what one would find on average back then. It still looks nice enough. It does a lot with the simplicity. Factor in the ominous song that plays between rounds, and you’ve got some eerie atmosphere going on in a soulless toy factory. The only major problem with Toy Bizarre are the load times. Activision released the game on three formats for the Commodore 64. Datasette Cassette tape, 5.25″ Floppy Disk, and Cartridge. The cassette version by far has the worst of the load times. Most tape games can take several minutes to load into memory, but this game is insufferably long on tape. The Floppy Disk version is nowhere near as bad, but still takes longer than a lot of other games on disk. Which is weird considering just how small the game is, even for the time. The cartridge version is obviously preferred in this regard. But keep in mind that cartridge versions of C64 games can be harder to find since most users had a Datasette drive or a Floppy drive. That doesn’t necessarily make them rare, but they can be uncommon. As such expect the cartridge version to set you back more than the other formats.

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The game also came out for the ZX Spectrum in Europe. I don’t have either the computer or that version of Toy Bizarre, so I really can’t compare the versions. Though the game was published by Mastertronic in some territories outside of North America. No matter how you slice it though, aside from terrible load times, Toy Bizarre is one of the best Santa themed games to be experienced. If you have a working C64, track down a copy. The only other way to find it, is if you can track down the Activision Commodore 64 15 pack collection for Windows 95. Which can be a hassle to get running on a modern PC.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.