Tag Archives: Computer Games

Demon Attack Review

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They can’t all be new releases. Sometimes life just has a way of throwing everything including the kitchen sink at you. So you don’t have the precious time to play a massive open world western, or a critically acclaimed RPG. But somehow you want to find time to play something compelling. This is why many early games can fit that bill, and often hold up today. One such game is a staple on early cartridge based consoles.

PROS: Enemy variety. Tight controls.

CONS: Not every version features the boss stage.

MAGIC: Imagic’s developers always seemed to perform it on the venerable VCS.

Released in 1982 Demon Attack is one of many titles that tried to build on the core concept set up by Space Invaders. It also has some inspiration from another early shmup; Phoenix.  Where Space Invaders saw you fighting a grid of ships from underneath the confines of shields, Demon Attack pits you against three enemies at a time. Destroy them, and another three will warp in. The game has this really terrific effect when the alien ships, and creatures come into battle against you.

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Another thing to be aware of is the fact that each wave introduces new enemy types. Each with its own attack pattern, and weapons. So you should not expect to be going after the same ships over, and over. Or the same bullets over, and over. If you survive a wave without dying you’ll earn a 1-Up. This makes it very easy to get complacent. “Oh I’ll just stock up on lives, and never worry!”. But you should worry. By around the fifth wave you’ll find shooting enemies splits them in half rather than destroying them. You then have to take down each half. And you have to take them down quickly. Once you take down one the other will begin chirping like crazy before suicide diving toward your cannon. The back lines will then move forward taking their place.

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While not one of the best looking games on the console, it’s visually a cut above what most of Atari’s own release had looked like up to that point. This is especially true of each of the enemy types. Demon Attack is one of the first 2600 releases to deliver such a wide variety of characters. Considering the limitations of the hardware of the time, and the limitations of cartridge space, it’s no wonder this is one of the first games worth picking up when starting a VCS collection. As a publisher, Imagic seemed to know how to push what was possible on consoles of the time. Like most games of the era there are several variations you can play by using the Game Select switch. Including some two-player modes where you alternate turns trying to out score each other.

Robert Fulop developed the game for the Atari 2600, and after Imagic had settled with Atari over the similarities in Demon Attack to Phoenix (Atari had home console publishing rights), it would go on to be one of the best-selling games on the system. There are no less than three printings of the game. A text label version, and a picture label version are the most common. You’ll find they’re often one of the cartridge variants you’ll see in a bundle of VCS games. After the crash, Imagic would find itself absorbed into Activision who would put it back out in their line of re-releases. This cartridge eschews the original Imagic style, and comes in an Activision shell, with a blue label. This version is considerably rarer than the common types, but is still far from impossible to find.

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In any event Imagic had other programmers port the game to several other platforms of the time. The Intellivision, Magnavox Odyssey 2, Commodore VIC 20, Commodore 64, Atari 400/800, TI-99, and Tandy computer all saw versions of Demon Attack. Many of them have better graphics than the original version, and include a boss fight! Be that as it may the VCS original holds its own by having such fluid, and responsive controls. In fact, it’s better than many of the more advanced ports that released elsewhere.

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Be that as it may, most of the ports are still quite good, and the boss fight can be pretty interesting as you transition between a surface, and space setting. Defeating it then continues onto the following wave. An interesting piece of info is that the 2600 version of the game almost had an end, as after the 84th wave the game would not continue. After release though, someone managed to get that far, and so the game’s future pressings added a line of code which made the game endless. Unfortunately, there’s no real way to know which cartridge will have the original run inside without actually getting to the 84th wave.

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Demon Attack isn’t particularly hard to find these days, Especially not the Atari 2600 version. However, the Odyssey 2 port is an exception. Like many other third-party Odyssey 2 games, it isn’t something you’ll stumble upon in the wild all too often. Still, no matter which version you play is a fun time. Even if the box art does consistently make appearances in bad box art articles. Demon Attack may be a simple game by today’s standards, but it did a lot of things few other fixed shooters were doing. It’s an early game everyone ought to check out. For those who are curious but don’t want to invest in one of the platforms it appeared on just yet, it is in the Activision Anthology for the PS2, and PC.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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C64 Mini Review

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Ever since Atari devised the original Atari Flashback line (Which it handed over to ATGames, who has kept the line going), the craze for replica consoles with built-in games has been going strong. Nintendo set the bar for them even higher with its NES, and Super NES Classic Edition machines. Even before this craze however, there were similar devices. Systems built into a controller from a wide variety of vendors like Jakks Pacific. And there was even the C64 DTV I reviewed a while ago. Well now there’s a new take on this mini console idea. As Retro Games LTD brings us a Commodore 64 iteration.

PROS: Excellent emulation. Feature rich. It’s a baby Commodore 64!

CONS: Game selection should have been better. No AC Adapter.

COMMODORE BASIC: You can actually code in it on this device.

Released throughout Europe earlier this year, the C64 Mini finally made its appearance Stateside, and so I picked one up. I pretty much had to as someone who used a Commodore 64 regularly throughout their childhood, and into their teens. The Commodore 64 was the best-selling home computer platform of all time. Released in 1983, and sold until 1994 when Commodore went out of business. And it was well supported in every major territory for most of that time. The American, and European markets differed in some of the game line ups. In Europe a host of publishers, and developers cut their teeth on it, and became the juggernauts they are today. Many games were exclusive to the European market despite being a machine made by an American company. Here in the USA, Commodore (as well as Atari, IBM,  and Apple) scooped up most of the publisher support consoles once had. When the great crash happened, and machines like the Odyssey 2, Colecovision, Intellivision, Atari 5200, Bally Astrocade, and others fell by the wayside it was the home computer platforms surviving companies shifted to. Even after the Nintendo Entertainment System reignited the console market, many games continued to see versions on the microcomputers. In Europe, the home computer platforms were almost always preferred, and so there was never really this kind of shift, leading to a wellspring of exclusive amazing games US owners never saw.

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Whichever part of the world you hail from though, the Commodore 64 had a massive following. As such it got a ton of games that not only appeared on consoles from the Atari 2600 to the NES to the Sega Master System, but IBM PC Compatibles as well. That’s besides the stuff that it had exclusively, or only shared with a couple of other computer platforms of the day. It was the platform to own until the NES showed up, and even then it still held its own into the shift toward 16-bit processor powered platforms like the Sega Genesis, Super NES, and Amiga computer line. And nothing has or ever will sound as awesome as a Commodore 64 again. It’s Sound Interface Device (SID) chip featured dynamic sound. Something even some arguably more powerful machines didn’t have. Bob Yannes truly was a master of sound chip design.

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So what makes the C64 mini so special? Well for starters, it’s a miniature replica of a Commodore 64. The designers got every major detail down on this thing. Of course they aren’t the defunct Commodore of old, so instead of COMMODORE being laden along the top, they’ve displayed C64 Mini. Other than that one change, it’s perfect. Mine had a minor tilted paint application by the power button, but one tiny manufacturing error is a very minor nitpick. I have to say that the presentation in this product is top-notch. The packaging is great. Like the Super NES Classic Edition, they’ve tried to re-create one of the C64 box releases, and have done well. On the back they show off the game list, and this is where the one disappointment crops up. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

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Opening the box reveals another box, one that feels luxurious despite just being more cardboard. It’s embossed with a beautiful logo, and upon opening it, you’ll see both the computer, and classic style joystick replica encased in a removable clamshell. Upon taking those out, you’ll find your cables, and documentation underneath. It should be noted that if you’re the type who likes to re-seal, and pack away your consoles when not in use, the packaging is accommodating. It’s very easy to put back everything where it goes for putting away. In the box you’ll get the C64 Mini, a Joystick, HDMI cable, USB cable for power, and documentation. Unfortunately for whatever reason it does not have an AC adapter. So unless your HDTV has a USB port for you use, you’ll need to buy a USB to AC adapter if you don’t already have one for another device like a smart phone.

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Upon turning on the device you’ll hear a glorious original chip tune, as you’re greeted with a simple language selection screen. Once you choose your language you’ll see a panorama of the devices built-in games. At the bottom are a couple of icons. You’ll have one for display options. These are very much like the ones on the Super NES Classic Edition. You can choose aspect ratio, and select from a few filters. Another icon lets you go back into the language selection, while the third lets you go in, and change other settings. One of which shows you the Firmware version. Here’s the cool thing. If you go to the manufacturer’s site, you can get the latest update for free. Put the update on a flash drive, and you can install it on the C64 Mini. When you do this, the device will reboot, and when it does you’ll see a USB flash drive icon at the bottom of the screen. This lets you read disk images off of a flash drive! So if you have a means to back up your collection to disk images, you have the potential to run them on the C64 Mini! This is also a great option for anybody who buys an indie game for their C64, as often times homebrew developers will have a digital image option or inclusion with their disk or cartridge. This is also great for anybody who enjoys the C64 Demo scene, as again, you can run these audiovisual projects on the C64 Mini!

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As for the games that are included here, the list of titles is a mixed bag. There are a few very memorable C64 games on here. Especially from the now defunct Epyx. The Apshai series is here, which is an amazing line of early Action RPGs. Jump Man, and Jump Man 2 are here, and while even back upon release they weren’t much to look at, they were amazing. These are two of the best platform-puzzlers ever released. This device also has the two Impossible Mission games which are also two must-plays.  Rounding out the Epyx catalog are some of their better known sports games including California Games. These aren’t what one would call system sellers, but they are probably the best versions of these titles.

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The Mini also has a few Firebird releases on it. Firebird wasn’t as well-known in the States as it was in Europe, but they still did release a lot of their better titles in the US. Two of the better ones here are The Arc Of Yesod, and The Nodes Of Yesod two games that feel like precursors to Metroid. They’re labyrinthine, and action packed games that while admittedly aren’t as good as Metroid, are still really well made. There are also a host of Shmups by Hewson Consultants on here which were always lauded back in the day. Cybernoid, and Cybernoid II are here, and play as great as ever. Cybernoid was an early C64 staple, and one that remains superior to its NES counterpart. Uridium is also here, which NES fans may recognize as The Last Starfighter. (Mindscape re-skinned it, and ported it long after the movie came, and went). They also put the excellent Zynaps on here, as well as Firebird’s IO. So there are some excellent Shoot ’em ups on display.

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The other two major titles on the device are Boulder Dash, and Tower Toppler/Nebulus. These games are excellent arcade style games with puzzle elements. I’ve talked about Boulder Dash a few times on the blog here, and truly is one of the best games of its ilk ever made. It’s great to see it here once again.  Tower Toppler is a very challenging game that has an awesome pseudo-3D effect at the forefront of its gameplay. It saw release on other platforms, but the Commodore 64 version was always one of the best versions. There is also a really cool Demo on it that doubles as an end credits sequence. It shows off the names of everyone involved in making it, and a lot of creativity in the process.

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As for the rest of the games, there aren’t too many I would say to stay away from. But they’re not the most compelling titles either. Save for Monty On The Run, many of them were lower tier releases in Europe, and so many North American players will not know anything about these games. It’s a real shame that the folks at Retro Games LTD couldn’t have found a way to get some of the major releases from Activision, Electronic Arts, Capcom, Konami, SEGA, Lucas Arts, or Data East. Or some of the classic Broderbund, Accolade, Cinemaware, Access Software, System 3, or Microprose releases. Granted few of these publishers are around anymore, and I’m sure there are all kinds of rights hell complications in getting their games to market again. Still, most of their exclusive games were amazing, and the ones that would appear on other platforms, were still excellent on the Commodore 64. (Most of the time. There were some ports that were stinkers.) I would have also liked to see some of the higher profile European releases like Katakis, Phantis, or Turrican II on here, or some of the American gems like Paul Norman‘s games Forbidden Forest, Beyond The Forbidden Forest, Caverns Of Khafka, Aztec Challenge, or Super Huey. Cosmi published them, and are still around today. They don’t publish much in the way of games anymore, but permission may not be out of the realm of possibility.

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Be that as it may, the fact you can run backup images, and homebrew releases makes up for the lack of more recognizable games in the roster. And although you may not have heard of some of the included ones, most of them are still enjoyable enough. You could very well find you get a lot of mileage out of  Who Dares Wins II It may not be the best Run ‘n Gun you’ll ever play, but it is a pretty respectable Commando clone. One really cool inclusion here is the classic Commodore 64 BASIC prompt. Like all of the 8-Bit microcomputers of the time, one had to use BASIC commands to load programs, search media for files or save files. But you could also code in BASIC! So if you’re a budding developer willing to learn the language, you can code your own games, and save them to a flash drive! You can also type in those old programs printed in classic magazines like Ahoy!, or Commodore RUN.

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The mini also has a spiffy on-screen keyboard you can pull up using the joystick, although I have to say, a USB keyboard is preferred. Especially when playing classic RPGs, coding in BASIC, or playing text adventures. The included joystick is a really well made one. It’s tactile, re-centers itself nicely, and the fire buttons have a nice mechanical spring design. The joystick also has a hotkey on it for pulling up menus, and the on-screen keyboard, as well as the Space bar button, and Return button. This makes navigating action games much easier, as you don’t have to frantically look for a key on your keyboard. However the drawback to this is that if for any reason you break the joystick, navigating things may become a bit iffy. So treat the joystick like fine china. Fortunately you can acquire spare joysticks separately. However, not all of the big box stores who carry the mini, carry the standalone joysticks. I also forgot to mention the C64 mini also supports save states. So you’ll be able to save scum your way through some of the more difficult sections of games, or just simply create a save point in general. Not every Commodore 64 game had a save feature, so being able to create a save file for some of the longer games available for the computer is very convenient.

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Emulation on the C64 mini is very good. Visually everything looks the way it is supposed to. The color palette is on par with the original computer’s. Graphics look crisp, and the sprites all look as good as they would on the original hardware. The different filters, and aspect ratios all work very well too. So if you don’t like the computer monitor look of the different settings you can put on one of the CRT filters I briefly mentioned earlier. Personally I recommend the pixel perfect or 4:3 aspect ratio, as they look cleaner. But if you prefer the look of scan lines, the filters do a pretty good job here.

Sound emulation is also spot on. Of course depending on the model of the original computer there were two major sound chip versions, with revisions of each throughout the production run. The mini appears to sound more like the earlier versions of the chip, which makes sense since the casing is modeled after the earlier version of the computer, and not the C64c re-release. The C64c had the later chip versions, and so there are some slight sound differences between the earlier C64’s, and the C64c (A C64 in a new casing). In any case, the sound veers toward the original model here.

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As far as the performance goes, it too is very good. Things run at a great pace, and I have yet to experience slowdown the original computer wouldn’t. I also haven’t noticed any considerable amount of input lag when playing games on it. I’ve tried it on three TV sets, a 720p 32″ Element LCD, an Insignia (Best Buy) 720p 19″ LCD, and a Samsung 4K 42″ LCD. I only ever noticed it on the Samsung, and even then, just barely. For the overwhelming majority of people who pick this up, it’s going to be a great experience.

 

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In closing, the C64 mini is one of the best of these miniature emulation devices to see release in recent years. While Nintendo’s releases have more recognizable games in their line ups, this device has better functionality. The ability to use virtually any USB controllers or keyboards paired with some of the best emulation around makes for an almost 1:1 experience. Plus, the inclusion of the classic BASIC prompt means you can make your own programs. This even adds an educational level to the package. Not only do you get a piece of video game history, but you can learn about, and learn how to code in a programming language.  True it isn’t as robust as a modern language, but it still gives you the building blocks, and helps you better understand where modern technology came from. I wouldn’t be surprised to find school teachers or other instructors picking this up for that purpose.

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Really, the only drawback is that it could have used a few more higher profile games in the line up. I would recommend getting a spare joystick for it at some point as well, just on the off-chance you somehow break the included one. The odds aren’t very high (again, the build quality is actually quite good.) but it’s just one of those just in case things you should have. Still, while it isn’t as cool as an actual Commodore 64 (though short of a FPGA powered clone compatible with the original’s drives, and software, what can be?) but it’s close. Real close. Its shortcomings are more than made up for by its features. This is simply the best mini platform not made by Nintendo. If you’re a long time Commodore 64 fan or collector, you’ll love that it makes C64 HDTV gaming a snap. If you’ve never experienced a C64, and want to without having to invest a few hundred dollars into obtaining one, its peripherals, and games this is a great option. It’s also a great device for anyone who wants to learn about early computers, and the use of BASIC programming as an Operating System. Even if none of those things apply to you, the wealth of indie homebrew games being made for the original C64 may just pique your interest. Again, the digital images for many of them can be run via flash drive.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Beamrider Review

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In the interim between the North American console market crash of 1983, and its eventual return to greatness in 1985 something had happened. While many software houses disappeared, others survived. One such case was Activision. Activision began to see a proverbial life boat in home computers. They continued to support the Atari 2600, 5200, Intellivision, and Colecovision. But while many other companies struggled with what to do next, they were one company who began making computer versions of their games. At one point, they even changed their name to Mediagenic for a short time, and tried branching out into other kinds of software. This didn’t work. But the migration to computer gaming did.

PROS: Great presentation. Great game play.

CONS: Accidentally wasting missiles.

DON’T: Accidentally destroy the 1-Ups.

One such pre NES era Activision game is Beamrider. Released in 1983, and coded by David Rolfe, it’s a space ship shoot ’em up with a third person view. What makes this game stand out however are the Tron inspired lines your ship, the enemies, and objects move along. Every one of the 99 waves sees your ships flying along a giant grid. you can move left or right, and you can fire with the fire button.

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Interestingly, you only stop moving upon each vertical line. This is where a lot of the high play comes in later. Like you, the enemies can move along horizontal lines. Unlike you, they aren’t limited to those lines. They’ll flow, in, and out of the background. Often going up, and down the lines in their attack patterns. Early on, you’ll face some pretty simplistic enemy fighters. Your lasso shaped lasers will take them out in a single hit, and the only real obstacles are the indestructible green shields that float around on the lines.

But after a few waves you’ll find yourself avoiding meteors, shields, enemy ships, and more. Each wave the enemy attack patterns become more, and more complicated. On top of this, you’ll have to avoid the aforementioned enemy shields, meteors, and other obstacles. You should also know you can only fire one laser at a time. There are no rapid fire features or power ups to save you. If you can get far into Beamrider you’ll find it gets faster, and throws in more, and more. But despite this fact, once you really begin to learn to analyze patterns you’ll find things become easier to deal with. By no means does the game become a breeze. But you’ll go further, and further before things seem insurmountable. Even when they do, remember every wave only consists of 15 standard enemies. It’s avoiding all of the extra stuff while trying to destroy them that presents that addictive high score challenge.

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At the end of each wave (Which the game calls Sectors) is a massive boss that scrolls off in the distance. If you can destroy it using your torpedoes, you’ll get a massive point bonus. You can shoot these by pushing up on the controller. But note you’ll only have three torpedoes per life. So use them wisely. Something that will no doubt keep you around is the way the game deals out 1-Ups. Instead of calling them 1-Ups or Extra Lives the game refers to them as Rejuvenators. These appear on the play field, and have an interesting mechanic. If you crash into them, you’ll gain another life. If you shoot them, they become space debris, and crashing into them will kill you. It’s something so small, yet changes up the game because it’s another thing you have to keep watch for.  It also ties into the game’s storyline.

Yes. Beamrider has a storyline. In the distant future, a massive device known as the Restrictor Shield isolates the Earth. As the Beamrider, you have to clear the shield which is composed of 99 sectors. Each of which is guarded by a Sector Sentinel. As you get further, and further the deluge deepens. David Rolfe’s Beamrider initially released on the Intellivision, and the Atari 2600 (with some minor concessions I’ll get to). Activision contracted Action Graphics to convert the game to the Atari 5200, Atari 400/800/XE computer line, Colecovision, Commodore 64, and MSX computer platforms. Activision contracted Software Creations to port the game to the ZX Spectrum.

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Graphically, Beamrider is a game that was visually impressive back when it was new, and it still doesn’t look too shabby today. Most of the versions are able to render an auto scrolling grid effect, and the Intellivision, Colecovision, Atari 5200, Atari 8-bit computers, MSX, and Commodore 64 versions all have a really cool blast door effect. When you begin a new wave, you’ll see a top, and bottom door, with a gap in the middle. That gap actually displays the animated grid you’ll be playing on! The doors open, and you’re off. It blew everyone away in 1983, and it’s still impressive today. Some have compared the look to Nintendo’s Radar Scope, or Konami’s Juno First. While these games do have grids, (Juno First being made up of dots rather than lines) they don’t auto scroll the way David Rolfe’s shooter does. The game play is also quite different here, making things feel rather unique.

Another really cool feature with these versions happens when you lose a ship. Upon your death, you will see the grid fade off into the distance, leaving behind a starry background while your flaming scrap heap of a ship floats through the depths of space. Then it’s back to the blast doors unless you’re out of lives. Then you’re stuck with a Game Over.  The Atari 2600 version makes a couple of cutbacks, likely due to the memory limitations of the console. Two of the enemy ship types have been omitted from the game, and the blast door effect is also missing. The animated grid effect is here, although the vertical lines are composed of dots rather than lines.  You also won’t be getting the grid elimination effect upon your demise. Again, this is likely due to either limitations of memory, or the 2600’s TIA chip. Despite these edits however, it is one of the most responsive versions of Beamrider. It manages to keep performance up to pace with the more visually appealing ports, and retains nearly everything else.

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The ZX Spectrum port retains the blast door effect, but the grid effect is made entirely of dots rather than lines. It also doesn’t have the grid fade effect when you die. Although when you’re out of lives it does change to a deep space background. It doesn’t look as nice as the other versions, but it retains the general game play.  If you can somehow make it through all of the sectors in any of the versions it won’t matter as the score will max out at 999,999 points. Be that as it may, there are but a proverbial handful of people who can or have done this. So if you can do it, congratulations. And even if you can’t, find solace in the fact that if you can crack 40,000 points or more by Sector 14 you could have won a coveted Activision patch back in the day. (Throughout their early days, the publisher rewarded skilled play with iron on patches based on their games.) Still, this is a shmup I would say just about anybody can enjoy. About the only issue you’ll run into is how easy it is to accidentally fire a torpedo you’ve been saving for the Boss.

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If you don’t happen to own one of the retro platforms Beamrider first appeared on, but you find yourself interested in playing it, it did appear in a couple of compilations.  Activision Anthology (PS2, GBA), Activision Anthology Remix (PSP, PC) featured the 2600 version of the game, while the Activision Commodore 64 15 Pack (Windows 95) features the Commodore 64 version. If you can manage to find Intellivision Rocks, (PC) you’ll find the original Intellivision version is included.

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So often in the world of retro games, early titles get overlooked for a variety of reasons. Beamrider should not be one of those games. If you collect for one of the consoles or computers it originally appeared on, keep an eye out for it. It isn’t one of the cheaper titles for those platforms, but it is certainly worth having in your collection. For those who aren’t ready to dive into investing into one of those platforms, but are interested in checking it out, one of the aforementioned compilations is worth looking into. Beamrider is one of the highlights of home gaming in the first half of the 1980’s. Whether you’re an enthusiast of the genre who owns everything from Aleste to Giga Wing, or a fan looking to play something different, Beamrider is one shmup that stands the test of time.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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!

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

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.

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

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.