Playstation killed the video arcade

arcade

Lately I’ve been searching for authentic video arcades in the UK. I have both a Raspberry Pi and an Android hand-held running Mame, and I even have a stand-up arcade cab with a couple of thousand games installed, so I’m not lacking in the ability to play the games I grew up on but it’s the atmosphere you get from an arcade that I miss. Let me tell you a little about my history with the arcades and I’ll share what I’ve found.

I kind of fell out of love with gaming sometime in the early 2000’s and found myself getting through much of the following decade playing only the Grand Theft Auto and Resident Evil series of games. It was a combination of factors – a focus on my career, meeting my wife, and perhaps more significantly the change in the video games industry itself that did it.

skool2I grew up through the 1980’s and 1990’s on the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore Amiga. In those early years the games industry (especially on computers rather than consoles) was still finding its feet and games hadn’t necessarily yet fallen in to neat genre boxes – in 1984 for example I was playing Jet Set Willy, Elite, Sabre Wulf, Skool Daze and Alien – an eclectic mix of game styles.

It_Came_from_the_DesertBy the early 90’s when I moved on to the Amiga the industry had evolved and much of what I was playing were arcade conversions and film licences fitting in to defined genres, but still mixed in amongst those were innovative and original titles like Millennium 2.2, Monkey Island, Lemmings and It Came From the Desert. But by latter years of the 90’s when I was saying goodbye to the Amiga I found myself without a new computer to move on to. The friendly, accessible home computer had been replaced by the era of the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation consoles, and as the 90’s came to a close it seemed to me that most games on these consoles were defined by clear genres and with a growing trend towards 3d.

My problem with 3d in the years of the Playstation and the Saturn was that the consoles weren’t capable of producing beautiful 3d graphics. Of course the novelty of seeing everything in 3d was fun enough initially, but those games have tended to age far worse graphically than the pixel art of the 80’s and 90’s.

I bought my Sega Saturn due to an addiction to Virtua Cop in the arcades, but I only ever bought one other title (it came with Sega Rally), Resident Evil, as nothing was really grabbing me anymore. Soon after, I met my wife-to-be who owned a Playstation which saw us through the better titles like Silent Hill, Driver, and Grand Theft Auto III, and from then on I would periodically upgrade my console to the next generation of Playstation so I could continue with the Resident Evil and Grand Theft Auto series, but very little else.

So why this introduction when this article is about retro arcades? Well, to my mind it was the Playstation that killed off the arcade.

time out arcade

In the United Kingdom, arcades were not as prevalent as I understand they were in the United States. In the US every mall seemed to have its own arcade, whereas my local ‘mall’, Brent Cross in Hendon, North London, didn’t even have a single arcade machine that I recall.

In the UK, arcades were really found in the seaside towns. If you were a kid who lived in a seaside town I can only image how wonderful that must have been, but for those of us who didn’t we had to seek out our arcade machines in a variety of locations, typically wherever children were a captive audience. For example, my go-to places to play the arcades were…

  • The David Lloyd Sports Club in Finchley (they had a room of arcade machines including Shinobi and Rolling Thunder)
  • Barnet Copthall Leisure Centre (a Rastan machine in the cafe)
  • Hollywood Bowl Finchley (Sega Rally)
  • Southgate Bowl (various machines)
  • Hatfield Galleria (Virtua Cop)
  • The Trocadero Piccadilly Circus (various machines)
  • The local funfair when it came to town
  • And various fish and chip shops, kebab shops and newsagents in North Finchley and Finchely Central (Ghosts ’n Goblins, Ghouls ’n Ghosts, Double Dragon, Bad Dudes v Dragon Ninja, Chase HQ)

…but they would also turn up in the most random of locations, so as kids our weekends were often spent wandering around the local area seeking out arcade machines, or if we came upon one while out with our parents we’d try to stall them for as long as possible so you could play.

So once a year when your parents decided to take you to the seaside for a few days, you made the most of the arcades!

First there was the car journey. At some point dad would need to fill up on petrol or someone would need the bathroom, which meant motorway service stations! Motorway service stations almost always had surprisingly excellent arcades inside, and because of the space available would often feature the sit down versions of machines like Outrun, Afterburner and Thunderblade. The great thing about the services was that everyone usually wanted a break from driving for a while so you tended not to find yourself hurried along and your money would tend to run out before being dragged away. To this day I still look around the services on car journeys but always find myself disappointed by the array of fruit machines which stand in place of the arcade cabinets.

magic city

Arriving at the seaside it would take minutes to track down an arcade: They had huge lettering above the door made of flashing lights, they were pitch dark inside and the combined noise of the games spilled out on to the street. And there was never just one arcade, there were always a few along the seafront and always one on the pier too.

The seaside arcade was the mecca of arcade gaming. You were spoiled for choice and they were stocked with everything from Space Invaders to Operation Wolf to Sega’s R-360 machine which spun you through full 360º rotations.

By the early to mid 90’s I was starting to see more 3d games appearing in the arcades like Daytona, Sega Rally, Virtua Cop and Virtua Fighter. And whereas when I used to see these games in the arcade as a kid I would be hopeful for the best conversion possible on my ZX Spectrum, I was now seeing really quite faithful adaptations on the Saturn and Playstation. The gap between the console and and arcade was closing. In fact, I first played Virtua Cop in the arcades in 1994 and by 1996 I was playing it on my Saturn at university with very little discernible difference between the two.

It was really by this point in time that the performance of the home console and the arcade cabinet had all but merged. All that the arcades had left to offer was the novelty of sitting in a cab that looked like a bit like a car or holding a light gun – but even those were readily available for the consoles. As a kid, walking in to an arcade was always a magical experience – I saw games that I couldn’t possibly have at home, but for the new generation of Playstation-owning kids, the arcades can’t have held any mystique, and ironically, for my generation we now had exactly what we’d always wanted – arcade quality games in our homes. And for anyone who did still long to play the arcade games from their past, the first release of Mame was in 1997, around the same time also that the World Wide Web came in to the public consciousness. It was a perfect storm of technological advancements that killed off the arcade as it was.

In the years 2000 to 2010 I rarely set foot in an arcade and when I did, gone were the games I remembered and in their place were coin pushers, ticket redemption and fruit machines. The arcade machines that I could find were almost always light gun and driving games, the two genres that are arguably still attention-catching and more difficult to achieve at home, but whenever I’ve played this new generation of shooter or racer I tend to find myself quickly robbed of my credit in a situation that’s designed to be impossible (or almost impossible) to win and requires another credit to continue. These machines feel less like games of skill and simply a way to part kids with money as quickly as possible to earn their space on the gaming floor; the modern arcade is a sad shadow of its former self. But I digress. The point of this blog is to discuss the retro arcade.

When I returned to gaming and got my nostalgia on, I began looking for retro arcades thinking like-minded adults would also want to return to the games of their youth in a familiar setting, or that some of the seaside locations had simply not moved on with the times, but I was left sadly disappointed. In my Googling of UK retro arcades and searching on Twitter, I found hardly a dozen locations around the country, and even then I’m bending the definition of ‘arcade’ a little and including some bars that have arcade machines. However, what I’m not including are any locations that call themselves arcades but only have consoles. The full list is here…

https://goo.gl/maps/g9bCip5W8sA2

First a disclaimer that I have visited only one of these locations so far so I can’t attest to their quality. The four main retro arcades on this list are…

I’ve heard a lot about Arcade Club and The Heart of Gaming and both sound exactly like the arcades of my youth (but without some of the strange characters hanging around). I’ve heard less about Time Warp Arcade and Astro City but both review well. These locations are spread pretty sparsely across the UK, so I’ve also included others that I’ve found to give you somewhere closer to investigate.

The National Videogame Arcade is not an arcade as such, but does exhibit arcade machines, has a very reasonable entrance fee and lists all their machines. Plus it’s also based in the middle of England unlike each of the other locations.

Most of the other locations are arcade bars, so no good for kids and not extensively stocked with machines, but if they’re closer to you, then they may be something to check out.

Lastly, I’ve included Las Vegas Arcade in central London. I’ve had conversations with them before about retro games and while they used to have some they’ve since retired them for machines that better pay for their floor space. It’s a shame as for those living in and around London like me, it’s the easiest location to get to. However, I’ve included it there as it’s worth checking out – especially if you like music games, there is a very lively scene down there.

I am amazed though that in the whole of the UK, this is all I could find! Last year I spent some time living in the US in LA and my nearest retro arcade, Neon Retro Arcade, was a thirty minute drive away and a fantastic arcade! The machines were almost all in great condition and it was busy with adults and kids showing the retro arcade is a viable business. The year before I spent several weeks in Vancouver where just two streets away was the Movieland Arcade – which is not even a retro arcade, but an authentic arcade from the 70’s that’s still running! And the games are still $0.25c! It seems that America and Canada had more of an arcade culture originally and have better embraced the return of the arcade and I can find arcades in many towns and cities across the water.

I hope that the enthusiasm for retro gaming continues to grow and that it drives the growth of the retro video arcade, and that someone opens one closer to my house!

As a quick aside, a great blog to follow is this guy’s. He’s been travelling to lots of arcades in the UK and seeing what they still have available, the odd older machine turns up from time to time so do have a read.

Advertisements

Operation Wolf

operation wolf medium

Operation Wolf is one of my all-time favourite arcade games!

arcade machine

Released in to the arcades by Taito in 1987 Operation Wolf immediately grabbed the attention by way of an Uzi mounted on to the front of the cabinet! And this wasn’t a neon blue or pink gun, this was black!

The gameplay sees you play a one man army Schwarzenegger / Stallone-style commando who has to work their way through six stages blowing away enemies and rescuing hostages (in fact, the movies Commando and Rambo II were released just a couple of years prior in 1985).

The game is big, noisy, colourful fun and alongside Outrun and Afterburner maybe best epitomises everything that made arcades so fun in the mid-80’s.

operation-wolf arcade

zx spectrum operation wolfThe home conversions followed quickly and I was pleased that the ZX Spectrum version was actually pretty good! It featured some nice music on the 128k machine and like the arcade the sprites were nicely drawn, large and swamped you! But as was almost always the case, it was monochrome! This wasn’t just annoying when your friends would bring it up in the playground, but sometimes it was tricky to spot enemies against the background.

R-Type zx spectrumAs the game scrolls horizontally under it’s own control, I’ve alway thought that it could have been given a splash of colour – much like Bob Pape’s R-Type on the ZX Spectrum, which is perhaps the best example of an arcade to ZX Spectrum conversion in terms of retaining both fast gameplay and full colour graphics. So I set about mocking up a screen from Operation Wolf to show what it could perhaps have looked like.

The graphics for the ZX Spectrum version are really good, so rather than re-draw them, I opted just to colour them, using mostly horizontal bands of colour.

operation wolf smallIn my version the background enemies would still get lost in the detail slightly, but the mid-ground band of colour would help better pull out the gun boats and tanks, also simplifying the foreground floor detail would better allow for colour to be added to the foreground enemies without the issues of colour clash. I’ve also coloured the falling icons as they were easy to miss!

There are a few illegal pixels and pixel misalignments in this mock-up, but it’s 95% correct (I didn’t have the time to fix everything) and I’m pleased with the final result. Given more time I’d probably add some more colour to the gun boats and add some more enemies to the image to see where the issues are.

And dare I also suggest that the ZX Spectrum version could even have gone one better than the arcade? With the screen split in to three very distinct bands, the ZX Spectrum could perhaps have featured three different scrolling speeds to introduce parallax. It would be interesting to know if that would be possible, but having seen some very impressive parallax in Thantos, it seems it might have been in theory? Either way, Operation Wolf was a great game on the ZX Spectrum and I hope this colour version shows what could perhaps have been.

 

Above The Law (aka Nico)

ABOVETHELAW-medium2

My dream job as a child would have been creating loading screens for the ZX Spectrum. spectrum light pen

In about 1984 I asked for a DK’Tronics light pen for Christmas and had visions of myself painting masterpieces for Ocean, US Gold, Ultimate, Durell…

…the reality was that drawing directly on to a 14″ TV screen with the pen’s time-lag made it impossible (at least for me) to create anything other than a mess of lines and shapes!

It wouldn’t be until I bought an Amiga 500+ some time in 1992 that I was actually able to start creating the digital imagery I had in my head. And by then of course the ZX Spectrum was consigned to history.

Recently I’ve been enjoying creating ZX Spectrum loading screens for some of my favourite movies – kind of scratching that itch that I never could as a child. Back in the mid-eighties I could have spent all day working on them, whereas nowadays time as an adult is much more  limited and to date my work has simply been creating an image using an app called Retrospecs with some pre-filtering in PS express and occasionally some touch-up afterwards in Photoshop. But I’ve decided now to go a step further and finish them with the name of the game and a company logo to complete the loading screen.

Sometimes these loading screens are for games that did exist back in the day, other times it’s a loading screen for a fictitious game – either a movie that wasn’t made until after the life of the ZX Spectrum, or one that was never made for whatever reason. And with that in mind, Above The Law is the first of the loading screens I never created back in the day for a game that never existed!…

above the law posterI’m surprised that Above The Law was never a game on the ZX Spectrum. Released in 1988 the movie hit at the height of the Spectrum’s popularity and featured a (nonsense) plot line made for a game…

Ex-CIA agent, sicilian martial arts expert Nicolo “Nico” Toscani must uncover CIA wrong-doing on the mean streets of Chicago. And the film is really just a show-case for Steven Seagal’s aikido skills, as he walks from fight to fight with a little exposition thrown in between to justify another fantastic brawl.

Had this licence ever been picked up, I imagine it would have fallen in to a standard Ocean template and found itself as a slightly modified version of Cobra (1986), where Nico runs from left to right punching generic bad guys and avoiding bullets. But wouldn’t it have been better if it had been a full-on fighting game like Street Fighter or Renegade!

So with that in mind, I’ve re-imagined the game as a US Gold licence of a Taito arcade game in the style of Renegade where Seagal’s Nico has to fight his way through several levels of differently themed Chicago thugs, deploying a range of aikido moves to despatch them, and then facing off against an end of level boss at the end of each stage.

ABOVETHELAW-small2I created this loading screen using Retrospecs to first convert an image of Seagal in to ZX Spectrum format, with some pre-filtering in PS Express to get the levels of the source image to best read and convert. For whatever reason, I’m finding that warmer skin tones convert better to ZX Spectrum images in Retrospecs. At the colder end of the palette the images don’t convert so well – possibly a limitation of the ZX Spectrum palette.

Then I took the the title of the movie from a different poster, cleaned it up a little in Photoshop and then converted it via Retrospecs in to a monochrome image.

Finally, I found some existing loading screens with some nice examples of the US Gold and Taito logos.

Then I took everything in to Photoshop, blowing everything up to 2560 x 1920 and setting a grid to work to, and then arranged everything so adhere to the colour clash rules. I didn’t need to clean up the image of Seagal at-all as that came straight out of Retrospecs in pretty good shape. Given a bit more time I might have looked to tidy up some of the square edges, but actually they make it feel a little more Spectrum-like, so I quite like them. Finally, I shrunk everything back down to 256 x 192 for the finished image above.

I’m pleased with the final result for a few hours work and had I been able to do this back in the late 80’s I’m pretty sure I would have been able to get that dream job creating loading screens!

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I’ve been arguing the merits (or not!) of The Last Jedi with friends and colleagues. On the plus side, the movie certainly has got people talking about Star Wars, but on the negative side, it’s for all the wrong reasons!

I stand by my feeling that it has a great third act that is undermined by an OK first act and a terrible second act.

I’m hoping JJ pulls the series back in the direction I thought it was taking with The Force Awakens and less Harry Potter and The Last Jedi!

THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: A LINK TO THE PAST

ZELDA medium resolution

I recently painted a mock-up of Out Run on the ZX Spectrum as it could perhaps have been had someone been given more time on the graphics. I was quite pleased with how it turned out for my first attempt at some in-game Spectrum graphics, so I thought I’d have another go on another notoriously monochrome game…but then I got distracted playing The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past!

I’ve never played any of the Zelda games before, but since getting a Blaze Tab Plus from FunStock I’ve been getting in to the SNES, and particularly this game. It’s incredible!

While looking up various Zelda material, I came across this video of a brilliant work in progress version of Zelda on the ZX Spectrum by a guy called David Clarke, and it made me wonder what Zelda could look like on the Spectrum?

ZELDA actual resolutionThe picture shown is my attempt at an in-game screen (shrunk back to 256×192 here, and shown larger at the top of the page).

I found this one more complicated than Out Run and it took me a couple of days in all to get it to this stage.

So for those interested in what I did, another explanation follows…

ZELDA SNESFirst I took an in game screen from the SNES version and cropped it to 256×192 resolution to match the ZX Spectrum resolution. I then increased that image in Photoshop to 2560×1920 so I could work on the image.

Like the Out Run image, I selected two square brushes to match the sizes of a single blown-up pixel and an 80×80 block of colour (at the new high resolution). Then I went to the view menu and turned on the grid option, altering the grid dimensions in the preferences menu so my screen was divided in to 80×80 sections. This made it easy to lay down blocks of colour and pixels so that they didn’t break the colour clash rule and aligned correctly; my practice on the Out Run image made this a fairly slick process this time around.

I started by trying to painting directly on top of the image, replacing the SNES palette with the Spectrum palette but I quickly began to appreciate how difficult it was for the old Spectrum artists to work with colour clash! It was incredibly limiting! So I looked to a few old Spectrum games to see how they worked around the problem and one in particular stood out called Robin of the Wood. It’s not a game I’d ever played, but I was really impressed at how they’d managed to use the colour palette, and it’s quite a Zelda-like adventure.

I decided that Robin of the Wood worked so well because they used a black background as the base colour, and then black as the main line-art colour with other colours being used to fill each ‘sprite’ or ‘tile’. So using that inspiration I started again!

ZELDA monochrome

This time I ran the SNES image through a handy App on my iPhone called Retrospecs to take a pass at making a monochrome version with Spectrum-sized pixels. After playing with the settings I got a good result out of Retrospecs that served as a good starting template. Then I started cutting that image up it to ‘sprites’ and aligning them to the 80×80 grid.

This simplified image was much easier to work with. It still took a while to see where to use black to define an image and where to use a colour, but it gradually turned in to selecting the most suitable base colour for the object and drawing on to it with that, using black to draw in the detail.

For larger objects like the house, after adding the base colour I could then look where I could use other colours to add highlights or details. If I was painting more screens, like the various towers in Zelda, I’d use this kind of technique to add more colour.

The only aspect I’d like to improve is the Link sprite. I’ve left him bright green in this image as he’ll spend most of his time walking over grass in the game, and that fits his costume colour. As you’d want him to move by the pixel rather than in blocks of 8 pixels I haven’t tried to add colour to him like Karnov – Zelda isn’t that kind of game.

I’m really happy with the final result! I totally want to play Zelda on the ZX Spectrum now! Any comments, let me know!

(I’ll try and do Robocop next!)

OUT RUN

OUTRUN colour medium

Outrun arcadeI have a soft spot for Out Run on the ZX Spectrum. I was probably blinded by my love for the arcade version and my desperation to own it in some way that made me enjoy playing it so much on the ZX Spectrum. Even looking back on it now, it was a valiant effort at porting the arcade version in to a tiny 48k, 8-bit machine. And the game is actually much better on the 128k machine with no multi-load to interrupt gameplay and even a couple of in-game sound tracks that play alongside the sound effects.

 

Outrun in game screenAnd yet, even at the time there was that nagging feeling that it wasn’t quite as good as it could have been. It ran quite slowly until the third stage where I thought my machine had broken when I first played it, as it slows even further to a near stand-still due to the attempt at remaining faithful to the arcade’s tunnel section. And you always had to explain to friends why the road was green…and hope that they didn’t make it to stage four when it turns bright magenta! But that’s the best you could do on a Spectrum, right?

Chase HQ in game screenWell no! Just two years later, Chase HQ appeared on the ZX Spectrum and showed what Out Run could have been. It was fast, the graphics were beautifully drawn, and even retained sampled speech from the arcade on the 128k version! And tunnels? Not only did they fill the screen but the developers even changed the pitch of the sound as you drove through them! But maybe best of all, the road was either concrete grey or desert sand yellow, which meant that your friends no longer asked why you were driving on grass…or began laughing when someone reached stage four!

But as good as Chase HQ was, it was still predominantly monochrome. And I always felt that there probably could have been a little splash of colour given how fast it all moved – colours jumping in 8×8 blocks would look fine at Chase HQ speeds. So I thought it would be interesting to see what might have been with Out Run – what could it have looked like if the graphic artist had worked around the colour clash limitations.

OUTRUN colour smallThe picture shown here is my version of an in-game screen (shrunk back to 256×192 here, and shown larger at the top of the page). I’ve only spent about a day on it and I’ve adhered pretty closely to the original graphics so as not to end up with a completely different looking game. I’m sure it could be done better than this, but it’s interesting to get a glimpse of what might have been!

For those interested in what I did, a little explanation follows…

First I took a ZX Spectrum in-game screen shot at 256×192 resolution and increased that in Photoshop to 2560×1920 so I could actually see what I was doing!

Next I had to consider both the working pixel size and how colour clash worked. I selected two square brushes to match the sizes of a single blown-up pixel and an 80×80 block of colour (at the new high resolution). Then I went to the view menu and turned on the grid option, altering the grid dimensions in the preferences menu so my screen was divided in to 80×80 sections. This made it easier (but still a bit fiddly) to lay down blocks of colour and pixels so that they didn’t break the colour clash rule and aligned correctly.

Next I took some Chase HQ and Out Run screens for misc roadside items, mountains etc and re-drew these at the larger scale and coloured them in. I tried to keep different objects on different layers so I could work on them separately.

The first thing I wanted to do was have a concrete road to match the arcade version, so I took my cue from Chase HQ for the look of that. I think it already improves the game!

I was never sure why Chase HQ left the mountains the same colour as the sky. Probably because of the line that would have been created between the top of the mountains and the sky. So to get around that issue, I added a layer of silhouetted mountains behind the FG mountains which allowed me to colour the FG a sandy yellow and use the black colour to separate the yellow of the mountains and the blue of the sky. It works quite well I think and doesn’t look like a tactic to avoid colour clash. I also worked a couple of shades of yellow in to the mountains just for a bit of variation.

I figure that objects would be flying towards us pretty quickly as in Chase HQ, so having FG objects jump in blocks of 8×8 pixels wouldn’t notice. In fact, in Chase HQ I’m sure FG objects jump in at least blocks of 8×8, so there is no reason not to colour them! Here I admit that my alignment of the trees and signs in the final image might have broken the colour clash rule if you measure it all out carefully (I could do better if I spent another day on the image), but the trees and signs themselves do adhere to the colour block rule within the sprite itself, and it’s only their on-screen placement that might be a few pixels out here and there. But in principle, this image is possible. The trees were the most awkward object to work with as the palms taper to a point and that doesn’t work so well with large squares of colour, but I think I did OK with them. For further levels it’d be better to stick to buildings and other square objects!

I decided to leave the sky as it was. With more time I probably would have gone for an IK+ sort of thing, but actually I quite like the banding of the Spectrum Out Run sky. At the very least I’d shift it all up a bit and add a nice yellow sun to the sky and some fluffy white clouds as that wouldn’t cause any colour clash issues against a plain cyan sky.

I decided to move all the HUD graphics to the top of the screen. These could look much better, but I wanted to concentrate time on the game graphics themselves so I left them much as they were and just realigned them and compacted them. I did recolour the speed indicator which looks much nicer I think (again, there may be a few pixels of error there, but it’s possible to lay it out like that).

Finally, the biggest issue of Out Run on the Spectrum for me what that the iconic red Ferrari Testarossa was green or whatever colour the BG was! Considering that the car doesn’t move, and the screen instead moves around it, there was no reason I could see not to make it red (at least no reason colour-wise). The shape is a little problematic for the blocks of colour, but I always felt that the car itself was well drawn so I didn’t want to alter it too much and just add colour to what was there. There are some compromises, but I managed to paint it red and even add some different colours to the lights, the Ferrari badge and even your girlfriend’s hair! For my efforts I also gave myself a personalised number plate!

Over-all I’m pretty happy with this effort as it was my first attempt at taking an old Spectrum screen and trying to add colour. Now I’ve had a little practise, I could do better (I’m thinking of looking at Robocop next) and also iron out the small errors I can see where the colour clash rule has been broken. But if this was the game I’d bought back in 1987, I would have been ecstatic…and would never had to explain away that green road!

 

 

STAR TREK BEYOND

Imagine if those rumours about William Shatner being in Star Trek Beyond had panned out in a sort of young Kirk and Spock meeting old Kirk and Spock way!

I’d love to see an Elite-style Star Trek game on the ZX Spectrum! Was there even an official Star trek game on the Spectrum?

Meanwhile, you’ll have to make do with some Star Trek Beyond ZX Spectrum artwork!

IMG_5654

IMG_5651

IMG_5653

IMG_5680

SABOTEUR!

Saboteur Box ArtUntil I bought Saboteur, my collection of Spectrum games were all copies on C15 cassette tapes from my dad’s workmates, the name of the game scribbled on the inlay in biro. I knew nothing about these games – whether they had been reviewed well, what the controls were, what the plot was or even what the aim of the game was. To try and make my games collection look somewhat more professional I used to make my own inlays by cutting out the adverts from computer magazines (sad, I know!), but it wasn’t quite the same! I desired real box art!

 

 

American NinjaAnd probably more than anything it was the box art that drew me to my early purchases. Back then, I didn’t have a regular subscription to a computer magazine (unless you count trying to read Crash cover to cover in the newsagents) and it was hit and miss whether the guy behind the counter in the computer shop would let you load a game before you bought it. So as my eyes scanned the shelves for what was to be my first ever purchase, I looked for something that spoke to me, aged ten in 1985. And there it was – a game called “Saboteur!” featuring a black clad ninja, doing a flying kick on a security guard, while simultaneously firing a sub machine gun, framed by an explosion! And this wasn’t Ultimate-style box art, this looked like one of those 18-rated VHS tapes in the video shop that you longed to rent!
For the first time in my game-owning history, I now knew what the purpose of the game was: “You are a highly skilled mercenary trained in the martial arts. You are employed to infiltrate a central security building which is disguised as a warehouse. You must steal a disk that contains the names of all the rebel leaders before its information is sent to the outlying security stations. You are working against the clock, both in getting to the disk, and in making your escape. You must enter the building from the sea by rubber dinghy, and will then only be able to leave by the helicopter on the roof. You will have to find your way around the warehouse, making use of the guards’ own weapons supplies in your struggle through overwhelming odds.” So now, instead of running around screens endlessly fighting enemies and not knowing there was actually something else I had to do to complete the game (Sabre Wulf, Atic Atac…), I knew exactly what my mission was – find the disk, set the bomb, escape!

Saboteur Loading ScreenMore often than not, this would now be the bit in the story where the excited ten year old goes home and finds they’ve been duped by some expert marketing and some screenshots from a different system. But the loading screen continued that promise of playing an ass-kicking ninja, featuring our hero brandishing a throwing star and flamethrower! And while the title music was limited to a simple beeper tune (Saboteur! is a 48k only title, coming out the year before the 128k machine was available), it’s a memorable one that seemed, in my mind at least, to fit the ninja theme.

When the game began, ten year old me was blown away! First, I was arriving on a rubber dinghy just as the inlay had promised! How many times did the inlay describe a dramatic event and then actually begin a game with you standing in the middle of the screen with no sign of that event ever having happened? And second, the graphics were incredible! And over thirty years later, I am still as impressed!

Saboteur In Game Screen 1The main character sprite is big! About a 1/4 of the screen height. He’s also well drawn and animated, with a nice stealthy run animation and a cool looking jump kick. Colour clash is also smartly avoided with him decked out in all black. The environment that he explores is also beautifully drawn and colourful. On the first screen the dinghy is yellow, the (animated!) water aqua blue and the pier red. There also seems to have been a real effort to give different areas of the map a different identity. The warehouse areas feel, well, warehouse-y with crates and things, while the tunnels below feel suitably dark, deserted and dank. There are nice graphical flourishes throughout too – an inanimate lifting crane, reel to reel computers etc.

All of this would likely fall apart if the game used scrolling, so wisely it opts for a flip-screen approach. This I think actually works better for Saboteur as (until you remember where things are) you don’t know what you’re going to run in to on the next screen. It gives the game a nice feeling of the unknown around each corner.

Saboteur In Game Screen 2The aim, as the inlay explains, is to find the disk, plant the bomb and get out using the helicopter, and after that description there’s no more hand-holding. You have to sneak around the map exploring all the rooms trying to find their secrets. Again, the graphics come in to play here as they’re different enough to start helping you memorise paths, but uniform enough that you can still get a bit lost.

On the second screen you encounter your first enemy, a guard dog. Our saboteur can punch and high kick, but his training seems to have been cut short and he’s not yet learned any kind of crouching attack moves to deal with dogs. The artwork also lied when it showed him brandishing a sub-machine gun, or a flamethrower on the loading screen. But I’ll forgive it that. So choices are to jump over energy-sapping dogs when you see them, or if you’re holding a weapon you can perform an angled throw which will despatch them with one hit. It’s a tricky move to perform right every time, and it’s frustrating when you misjudge the distance, but you never feel cheated – if you miss you know it’s because you hit the fire button at the wrong moment or missed the diagonal on the joystick. Our saboteur can only carry one item at a time and once thrown it’s gone. With a finite number of weapons laying around the map you’ll need to choose carefully when to use one.

Moving on from the encounter with the dog you’ll come across the next line of defence in the warehouse, ammo-firing security cameras. These provide a fairly minor challenge on the easier levels and mostly deal out a shot which just smarts rather than causes you any serious problems.

The other kind of enemy the game throws at you are beret-wearing guards. These guys look great! Mostly they’ll just run at you and engage in a bit of hand to hand combat, but occasionally they’ll open fire with a sub-machine gun. A single blow will kill them meaning they’re a far easier enemy to deal with than a dog, but you can still find yourself running low on energy and running in to a guard at just the wrong time.

The health mechanic in the game is excellent. Rather than a frustrating single hit kill, you have a health bar which is gradually depleted when attacked, if you submerge yourself beneath water (nice touch!) or fall from a height. And in a very modern gaming mechanic, your health bar will slowly replenish if you stand still. The health mechanic works well in conjunction with the depleting time limit as you have to carefully judge when to keep going and fight whatever or whoever you run in to, and when you need to stop to catch your breath.

Everything is balanced so well in Saboteur!. The enemies are an obstacle, but one that’s easy to overcome if you’ve got a full health bar. The platform jumps don’t require pixel perfection, but you’ll find yourself falling off one when your health is too low or your time too short. And your health bar is plentiful but often depleted dangerously low just when you don’t need it to be. It feels that Durell put a lot of time in to balancing this game. And that balancing extends to the race against the clock and the size of the map area. The map is small enough and the time long enough to allow you to explore, but also large enough and the time short enough for you to find yourself having taken a wrong turn and having to take risks to get back on track.

Saboteur In Game Screen 3Saboteur! is also one of the most atmospheric games I’ve ever played on the Spectrum. And it manages to do that with limited sound and graphics, but also to keep throwing you a new visual treat as you progress, giving the game scope – the first time I ever found the underground monorail I was blown away! Durell could have just had a tunnel, but they went to the trouble of adding a monorail that you ride in (even if it does look like an old caravan). And if you do reach the helicopter, you’ll probably expect to run up to it and the game end – but no, the roof opens and the helicopter takes off!!!

Saboteur! was a game like no other that I’d played at the time – the way it looked so serious, and the way it actually did all the things the box promised! Perhaps because of that, or perhaps because I owned the box and knew what I was supposed to do, it was one of the few games that I completed as a child. And once you know the route around the warehouse and where to find the disk and the bomb, it’s actually quite easy – as an adult I can still do it usually after only one practise run to refresh my memory. But again, Durell thought of that and the game has several difficultly levels with each changing the configuration and speed of the enemies, the position of the disk and the bomb, the time limit and crucially also means you have to use terminals to open doors  which are now locked (you have to figure out which one opens which door through trial and error). The game is hugely re-playable anyway, but when you’ve mastered the basic level, you can crank the difficulty up and try again!

It’s a game that I have coming back to for over thirty years now, and it never gets old!

Version reviewed, 48k.