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!)

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OUT RUN

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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!

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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.

RENEGADE 3: THE FINAL CHAPTER

Renegade and Target Renegade are two of the best games on the ZX Spectrum, and almost certainly the best beat ’em ups on the system.

Renegade was a faithful conversion of the arcade original, and in some ways was actually better than its source material. While Target Renegade managed to retain the DNA of its predecessor, and expand on it adding a simultaneous two player mode and weapons! So how do you better that?

Obviously you want to retain the distinctive graphic style, the two player mode of Target Renegade, and the weapons. Perhaps add a couple of new fight moves? Perhaps interactive scenery like Double Dragon? Perhaps more levels and even an Outrun-style branching map of New York where you can take different routes to your final goal to give you longevity in the gameplay? And you have to bring back the multiple bosses of Renegade – Target Renegade’s only flaw.

Although I’ve always been down on Renegade 3: The Final Chapter, I’d never actually played it until now. Back in the day I was put off by the storyline alone – the idea of a time travelling adventure felt almost seemed disrespectful of what had gone before rather than a fresh direction. But perhaps I’ve been wrong all this time, and yet another journey through seedy streets fighting gang members would have grown stale? After-all, the game did score a Crash Smash and 91% at the time, so maybe all these years I’ve been missing out on playing the best game in the series?

Renegade 3 Loading ScreenThe game starts promisingly with the best loading screen of the series. It’s excellently drawn! The in-game music too is good. Not as good as it predecessors, but the effort has been taken to write a different theme for each level that fits the time zone – it’s a nice touch. But then I pressed start and everything went horribly downhill!

The most notable omission is the two player option. While I love Renegade’s one-man mission, Target Renegade is arguably more fun as you can battle through the gangs with a friend. But a two-player option is not a deal-breaker if the game needs the processor speed for something new. The next omission are the weapons of Target Renegade, again, a shame but not a deal-breaker if we’ve instead got some new moves to battle our enemies.

The next thing to strike me were the graphics. Backdrops are monochrome, using just black and yellow or black and white over the four levels (one level less than the previous games)! Both previous games had colourful backdrops which was made possible due to the flip-screen scrolling, so if Renegade 3 scrolled perhaps I could forgive this? But it doesn’t! It’s still flip-screen! And gone are the serious-looking character sets. Instead we have a new cartoony, stunted-style to the graphics. But again, none of this is a deal-breaker if it’s a good beat ’em up that adds something new to the series.

Enemies come at you far more quickly and in greater numbers than the previous games, so maybe that’s a good thing, a tougher fight? Unleashing my moves on them however I was immediately disappointed to find that they’re not only completely different to the original games, but also vastly reduced! There are in fact only two key fight moves now, a crouching punch and a forward punch or kick, neither of which seem to make any great difference in a fight (crouch punch I suppose is the only way to attack short enemies, but you can use it for normal ones too). And whereas you felt connected to your enemies in the originals, having to line up the distance and Y axis just right to land a blow, in this game I felt completely disconnected with contact being a more vague affair leaving me simply to mash the fire button. In both previous games it was also possible to separate enemies by walking around the play area and then picking your moment to attack, but in this game if an enemy is one one side of you they remain there (usually in a group of three), always backing away from you so there is no real strategy to the fight, just punch/kick then back away a bit to avoid their strike, then go in again for another go.

The aim of the original games was to clear a level of all the gang members within the time limit. Renegade 3’s enemies however seem infinite in number, and probably most damning for a beat ’em up, I found the best strategy to be to avoid fighting!!! Instead I would move quickly to the right dodging enemies, fight two waves of mandatory enemies which would unlock the scrolling again, then move quickly to the end of the level where I’d have to fight another couple of waves before a time machine would drop down and whisk me to the next level.

So, those levels…

Renegade 3 Level 1My first thought on seeing the first prehistoric level was that it looked like a budget title, not a full price game. In fact, I do wonder whether this game really was written as a sequel to Renegade or whether it was once a different game and the main character sprite was swapped out for a Renegade-like character and the game re-packaged as a sequel? It just feels so far removed from the previous two games. (Does anyone know the history of the game?)

The graphics are not bad in themselves, the backgrounds are quite well drawn and the character sprites have a decent cartoony look. But the animation frames are terrible, giving the whole thing a jerky, messy kind of look in motion which is what gives it that budget feel.

The one addition to the gameplay is Double Dragon-style interactive scenery. Every so often you reach either a small chasm that has to be jumped (with a terrible jump animation), or a larger chasm which must be navigated past by climbing up/down a ladder to the level above/below and walking past it. Without this distraction the game would be truly boring, and that’s saying something because Renegade 3’s jump and climb moments are clumsy at best, but they’re at least something to do other than hitting the fire button.

As I punched boxing glove-wearing dinosaurs, Captain Caveman look-alikes and dodged everything else, I felt sad at what this franchise had become!

Oh, and there’s no end of level boss on this or any level to come – not even the final level!

Level two sees us heading forward to ancient Egypt. Again, the background graphics are good, but still yellow and black. The character sprites are better on this level, but again have terrible animation which lets them down. The cover art suggests that we’ll be high-kicking mummys in the face, but that never happens!

Level three sees us in medieval times. Despite probably having the best level graphics, this one depressed me the most as we’re set upon by knights…riding hobby horses! It’s like the game-makers were laughing at the franchise! It’s also noticeable by this point that no level is harder than the previous. In the previous games the gang members adopted different fighting styles which made each level more difficult – remember the instant death of Renegade’s knife-wielding thugs, or the life-sapping bouncers from Target Renegade? Well, each level in Renegade 3 simply swaps out the character sprites for something that fits the theme of the level, but retains the same attack pattern as its equivalent in the previous level.

And finally, after only three levels we reach the final, and probably worse level! The future design is uninspired, ugly and blandly presented in black and white. Here we’re attacked by aliens and robots in a confused future meets sci-fi theme.

Like all previous levels, we simply avoid enemies until we can go no further right, climbing up ladders and jumping chasms when we come across them, and take out a couple of obligatory waves of enemies to allow us to start running away again. And then it ends with not so much as a glimpse of your kidnapped girlfriend, let-alone a final boss fight. Sigh!

Looking back, Crash scored Renegade 89% and Target Renegade 90%, both of which are very fair scores. But Renegade 3’s 91% feels more like an attempt to sell Spectrum games in the final years of the machine than an honest score. In reality, I played it for about twenty minutes or so and, unlike its predecessors which I play to this day, it’s something I’ll likely never pick up again. It gets 20% from me – entirely for the loading screen and the music.

Version reviewed, 128k.

ALIENS

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Alien Isolation is one of my favourite games of all-time. It’s so tense! Yet I’ve never tried Alien or Aliens on the ZX Spectrum, though surely among the multi-load levels there should be a sub-game where you play Bishop and have to “do the thing with the knife” between Hudson’s fingers!

TARGET RENEGADE

How do you follow a game like Renegade, possibly the best best ’em up of all time on the ZX Spectrum?

Well, in the same way that James Cameron managed to go bigger with Aliens and Terminator 2, so did Imagine with Target Renegade!

Now, that’s not to say the game is better than the original, but if you put them both in the ring together I’m sure it’d be a split decision from the judges.

Like its predecessor Target Renegade is a beat ‘em up where the player fights their way through five levels of various enemies before confronting a boss. The original was a faithful conversion of the arcade game by Technos, whereas this sequel is an original title and probably all the better for it.

Target Renegade Title ScreenThings start promisingly with a title screen that is immediately more impressive than its predecessor, emulating the box art quite closely. And then the title music plays and it’s…really quite downbeat! And that really sets the tone for the game to follow.

It seems that after fighting his way through five levels and four bosses in the original, our hero, Matt, has been killed! We now play his brother who is avenging his death.

I always felt quite sad that Matt had been killed off. I kind of grew close to him through endless nights trying to fight my way past Big Bertha, so this game was always tinged with sadness from the off. And the soundtrack running throughout absolutely fits that mood, giving the whole game a melancholy feel.

When the game begins, the colour palette and graphic style are immediately familiar to look at. We’re even charged by a biker just like the start of Renegade’s level two – this could be a missing level from the original. But while it’s all quite familiar, the differences start coming at us thick and fast.

The first and biggest difference is that Matt had two brothers! Yes, it’s a two player game! Two player games always felt like something of a treat on the Spectrum – there was nothing worse than going to a friend’s house and having to take turns on a game…and arguing that your last go wasn’t fair and that the computer had cheated you somehow.

The game works perfectly well as a single player beat ‘em up, but the two player option really adds to the fun! In one-player mode, three enemies are on-screen and surround you at a time. That’s the same number that would surround you in Renegade, so the fight mechanic is very similar to the original game. In two-player mode, two enemies surround each player with a total of six character sprites on screen (including the brothers) at a time. It’s impressive to look at the simultaneous fights going on, and it’s in these chaotic moments where you’re forced to use team-work that the game really shines.

While the fighting style is almost exactly the same as Renegade, it looks like Matt’s brothers both had the day off fight school when they were teaching the shoulder throw, that move missing from the sequel. However, since Matt’s untimely death, the brothers have learned how to perform a flying kick which comes in handy (also, whereas Matt had a nice straight jab, his brothers have a flailing windmill style of punching)! But best of all, whereas Matt was strictly a fist-fight kinda guy, his brothers have no issues with picking up a dropped weapon and going to town on the bad guys! It’s always frustrating to watch an enemy drop a weapon in a game and not be able to pick it up, so this was a hugely welcomed addition to Target Renegade!

And finally, although not a major change to the gameplay as such, even the addition of having to walk across the levels makes it feel as if the fight arena has been expanded – in Renegade it wasn’t uncommon to just stay within the boundaries of a single screen on some levels. At the very least, this makes the game feel bigger than its predecessor. So lets explore those levels.

Target Tenegade Car ParkLevel one sees us in a car park that’s graphically reminiscent of the subway from Renegade.

Immediately we’re driven at by a biker, and then attacked by bikers and thugs on foot. Arguably the whole game peaks on this level when we reach what we think is the end and enter the elevator only to have the screen scroll down to place us on another level of the car park. It’s a neat graphical trick that’s never repeated again in the game and really adds to the scope of the level.

Where the game is perhaps weaker than the original however is that there is no end of level boss on this or any of the following levels, only the final fight with Mr. Big. If each level had its own unique boss, I think that might have been the clincher in the Renegade v Target Renegade fight.

Target Renegade StreetsLevel two dumps us on dirty back streets of New York, but actually looks more like Watford. Here we’re set on by some fairly butch ladies of the night and their pimps. At first this level feels easier if anything than the last, but the game is well balanced in difficulty and the sudden appearance of a gun-toting pimp ramps up the difficulty nicely; you can even use the pimps to your advantage if you’re smart!

Target renegade ParkLevel three is graphically the most beautiful. I assume it’s Central Park, but again looks more like a local London park circa 1983, perhaps because the enemies feel decidedly British – skin heads, punks and black guys in a baseball caps – but perhaps also because the trash cans are labelled “bin”? Either way, it’s a great looking level with beautifully drawn enemy sprites and a brilliant backdrop.

Target Renegade PrecinctLevel four is perhaps the weakest graphically. The precinct doesn’t look like anywhere in New York that I’ve ever been! Luckily the character graphics are great and the level throws the game’s next set of surprises at us. First we’ve got the Beastie Boys who duck our flying kick which has otherwise probably seen us through much of the game so far! Unlike the previous levels there is also no weapon to be found anywhere, so these things force us to switch up our fighting style which is always a good thing! Plus, we’re menaced by the Beastie Boys’ pitbulls which although weak, are fast and sometimes catch you off-guard!

Level five shows us that all Mr. Bigs have similar taste in decor – this one choosing to deck out his bar with the same bright green carpet as Renegade’s boss! Again, this feels more like a British pub than a New York bar and I think the artist may have forgotten that this game was supposed to be set in New York, but it still looks nice. The enemies here are pretty brutal bouncers and it’s great again to see the game using a totally different attack to any of the game’s previous enemies. If you’ve gotten this far, this is likely the level that’ll send you back to the start!

And then finally we enter the pool hall for our final fight with Mr. Big. If you’ve gotten here as two players, rather than duplicating two Mr. Big sprites, a bouncer will accompany him for the final fight which is a great touch!

Sadly there is no Renegade v Renegade fight after defeating the boss, a la Double Dragon, or a little graphical touch like the original’s kiss with his girlfriend, just the word “Congratulations” printed on screen. But you can’t have everything!

Target Renegade is exactly the sequel that Renegade deserved. It’s familiar enough that it feels like a continuation of the story, but adds two key game mechanics that make the sequel a new game rather than a re-skinned version of the original. The only criticism I can really level at it is that a boss at the end of each level would have been the cherry on the cake, but perhaps that would have been just a bit too much to cram in to the 48k version?

Version reviewed, 128k.

Blaze Tab Plus Review

Back in February 2016 I backed the Sinclair ZX Vega Plus console on Indiegogo. It’s what I’d always wanted – a hand-held ZX Spectrum!

ZX Vega Plus

I’ve listened to some people since asking why anyone would want a hand-held Spectrum when you can emulate the system on any desktop machine, or cheaply own the original hardware for an authentic experience. I’d call myself a casual retro-gamer, someone with limited time to sit down at a desk, let alone loading something from a C90! I also often find myself on a plane or train, or in a hotel room away from home for business, so the idea of conveniently playing my old Spectrum games – straight from my pocket – appeals greatly. And hey, 4,766 other backers on Indiegogo agree…or used to!

This article isn’t a swipe at the Sinclair ZX Vega Plus campaign, but my purchase of the Blaze Tab Plus was motivated by the lack of the Sinclair ZX Vega Plus console materialising on the original delivery date and the subsequent months that I’ve waited. Before I contributed to the campaign I had looked at systems such as the JXD S7800B but the Sinclair ZX Vega Plus felt like a more convenient plug and play solution for me with no need to ‘mess around’ with my unit to get games to work. Also, I wanted the Sinclair name to live on in new hardware iterations.

When the Sinclair ZX Vega Plus finally arrives (and I believe it will, eventually) it probably will be a more dedicated solution for the Spectrum, but in the time waiting I’ve more fully researched other emulation gaming tablets and realised that the effort in turning them in to a Spectrum and playing games is not as great as I thought, plus they also have the advantage of easily switching to an Amiga, NES, and so on, should the mood take you.

Blaze Tab Plus in Box

WHY THE BLAZE TAB?

I arrived at the decision of the Blaze Tab Plus without too much research on the subject due to limited time. I was looking to spend around £100 on something that had the form of a PSP, with the hardware to run at least a Spectrum and preferably a number of number consoles and systems which I never owned at the time and fancied dipping in to.

The Blaze Tab Plus is available from Funstock and positioned as the successor to the JXD S7800B, a system which I’d read good things about over the years. It’s priced at £99.99 which is exactly on the price point that I wanted. Other units I looked in to were more expensive without offering much in the way of specs that would appear to make a difference for retro gaming.

SPECS

Funstock list the full technical specs of the device on their website, but the basics that I wanted from the machine were…

  • Android 4.4.4 Operating system
  • Wi-Fi
  • USB connection to Mac/PC
  • HDMI output to TV

Contrary to the measurements on the Funstock website, it actually measures approx…

  • Length: 9.5 inches
  • Height: 4.5 inches
  • Depth: 0.5-0.75 inches

With a screen size of approx…

  • Length: 6 inches
  • Height: 3.5 inches

It’s certainly not pocket-sized. My iPhone Plus is sometimes a tight fit in my jeans and this is about 50% larger than that, so it’s going to be more likely transported in a bag than a pocket. But the advantage of the larger size is that the screen is nice and big.

OUT THE BOX

The box simply contains…

  • Blaze Tab Plus
  • USB cable
  • Instruction booklet (pretty basic)

First impressions of picking up the system are good! It has a fairly nice, unassuming design, something that could be mistaken for a tablet at several paces with very low-profile buttons and thumb-sticks.

The unit doesn’t feel expensive to hold, tap it and it sounds like a hollow plastic shell. It also doesn’t look expensive up close. It’s not an item of design beauty like an iPhone. But then, it’s not expensive! And it certainly doesn’t look bad by any means.

It feels good in the hand, and although the plastic isn’t solid it doesn’t twist or creak when you grip it tightly. Buttons are well placed around the unit with the d-pad, thumb-sticks and X, Y, A, B buttons all feeling good under your fingers. Only the volume, select and start buttons feel sticky to press down, but that doesn’t matter as they’re not the gaming buttons. I wouldn’t like to push the thumb-sticks too hard as they feel susceptible to breaking if waggled too forcibly. Shoulder buttons are perhaps a little tricky to get at as the unit is much larger than a PSP, but I did manage to get at them.

There are slots along the top for HDMI connection to a TV, a headphone jack, micro SD slot, and USB connection to a charger or a desktop machine.

TURNING IT ON

Turning on the machine I was pleased with the screen quality. It’s bright and vibrant and in fact I have it turned down to 50% brightness to save the battery and it still doesn’t feel dull. The viewing angle is also excellent and it can be clearly seen at an extreme angle.

Sound from the stereo speakers is good too, with both reproduction quality and volume levels being decent. The placement of the speakers could perhaps be somewhere higher up on the machine to avoid being muffled by your palms, but mine didn’t obscure the speakers at any point so it looks like placement has been considered.

The touch-screen is adequate, but I found myself tapping menu selections a couple of times sometimes as if I had missed the virtual button by a few millimetres. If you use an iPhone regularly you’ll certainly feel the difference. I found myself using a combination of screen taps, swipes and selection via the d-pad and X, Y, A, B buttons. But really, this is a minor note as no retro games I plan to play make use of a touch-screen!

TURNING THE BLADE TAB PLUS IN TO A SPECTRUM

I’m not familiar with the Android operating system, so as a novice this is the bit I was dreading – I expected hours of messing around to get a ZX Spectrum up and running on the machine. In reality, I was playing Renegade within about five minutes!

Blaze Tab Plus

First I went to the Setting menu and connected to my Wi-Fi network. Then I went to the Application menu and selected the Google Play Store and typed in Unreal Speccy Portable, downloaded and installed it. Now to get some games!

I use World of Spectrum for my ZX Spectrum roms, but Google will give you a number of sources. I chose a number of .tap files for my favourite games and downloaded them to my MacBook Pro desktop.

Next I installed Android File Installer on my MacBook Pro and connected the Blaze Tab Plus to the Mac with the supplied cable. I don’t remember whether I need to pair the two devices, but if I did, I went to the Setting menu on the Blaze Tab Plus, selected Advanced Setting and clicked the More… option (below Wi-Fi and Data usage), that gave me an option for Tethering & portable hotspot which I clicked to get to USB tethering.

The Android File Installer on my MacBook Pro automatically listed dirs on the Blaze Tab Plus and enabled me to simply drag and drop files on to the device. It was not immediately obvious to me where to copy files on the device as there were a few dirs that had similar names. Either way, it doesn’t really matter as you just need to navigate to them in the emulator.

I suppose I could have downloaded the roms directly to the Blaze Tab Plus using the device’s internet browser, but I prefer to store my library of roms to my MacBook Pro and copy them as required.

The Unreal Speccy Portable emulator on the Blaze Tab Plus opens without much explanation of what to do next, but a swipe down on the screen reveals some icons at the top of the screen*. In the top right there are four icons that are fairly self-explanatory, so I clicked the one that looked like a file directory, then the far left File option to navigate to the roms on the device (you can also use the four built-in internet links on this menu to navigate to on-line roms with no need for any of the above steps other than installing the emulator, but I prefer having my own set of roms and being able to choose which version of a rom to use). It took a bit of clicking back and forth to find where I put them on the device, but eventually there they were. Now the moment of truth, would the games just plug and play?…

Well, kind of, yes! Renegade loaded instantly in 128k mode which was a good start and I quickly learned that I had to tap the screen to reveal a temporary virtual keyboard for the Spectrum and then tap the key relating to the control system I wanted to use, in this case “4” for Kempston. The game then began and amazingly I could use the d-pad or thumb-stick to control my character and the A button to punch! A number of hours then passed!

I’m not yet fully familiar with the Blaze Tab Plus, nor the Unreal Speccy Portable emulator, so sometimes I find myself initially unable to control my on-screen character in a game, or unable to find a menu to tinker with the control options. But there are only so many combinations, so eventually I figure it out and off I go! * It is particularly the file menu that I lose every so often and find myself tapping all the virtual menus trying to find it again.

As you might expect, the Blaze Tab Plus has no problems running a ZX Spectrum! And thanks to the size and quality of the screen, you can see individual pixels clearly for those games where pixel-perfect maneuverers are required. I was absolutely over-joyed that within five minutes I was playing one of my favourite Spectrum games again and I feel like a vast catalogue of games have been opened up to me again!

Renegade

There are of course games that don’t lend themselves to the device. I installed Rebel Star 2 as it’s one of my all-time favourite Spectrum games, and then realised that it’s played entirely on the keyboard! I suppose it’s technically possible to play the game by tapping the screen to reveal the virtual keyboard, though really I’d say that keyboard is good only for selecting options on the game menu screens. Additionally, it’s probably possible to play with a Blue Tooth keyboard, but then if you’re going to do that you may as well have a Spectrum emulator running on your laptop. Really, in my opinion the best games played on the device are those that were played with a joystick.

After playing several Spectrum games I decided to try out some more emulators.

OTHER CONSOLES

The Blaze Tab Plus comes pre-installed with emulators for Arcade, Nintendo 64, Super Famicom (Super Nintendo), Dreamcast and Playstation 1. There are also a small selection of roms for each. It appears also to be installed with a PSP emulator, but no roms that were obvious on the device.

I tried each of the emulators with a pre-installed rom and they all seemed to be pre-configured to the controls of the device. Each game takes some clicking to figure out which buttons do what, but I didn’t come across any that didn’t pick up the controls. It was plug and play!

Using the same system for adding roms to the ZX Spectrum emulator, I used Emuparadise to find more roms for the pre-installed emulators, found the dirs where the current roms were stored and copied them over. As you would hope, they then show up in the list of games for that emulator and off you go! It was that simple.

Amiga

In the same way as I added the ZX Spectrum emulator to the device, I also added an Amiga and Game Boy Advance emulator. Both required a little more work than the Spectrum emulator. The Amiga emulator, Uae4all2, required a kickstart rom which I got using Amiga Forever Essentials. And then it required a little learning on how to use it which I did using a good YouTube video. But it was absolutely worth the small effort and soon I was playing Turrican again after a twenty year absence! Likewise, the Game Boy Advance emulator required a small amount of work to make it functional, but something that even a novice like me can tackle.

The Game Boy Advance emulator was the first where I found that I had to use the built-in keymapper to control my character. A swipe up on the screen reveals a number of icons along the bottom of the screen, one of which looks like a joypad. Tap it and you can then drag each of the on-screen buttons to align with the virtual controls of the emulator and then press the save option to lock them. This is more fiddly than just loading a game and playing, but it works!

The device also comes with the Happy Chick app on one of the menu screens which gives quick access to a vast range of roms for the pre-installed emulators and others. I had a look at it and did successfully download a game but was a bit hesitant to use the app as it felt a bit shady, and I couldn’t really tell where it was saving the roms. It was so simple to add my own emulators and roms that I’ll stick to that method, but it’s there if your fine with using Happy Chick.

STORAGE AND BATTERY

The device tells me it has internal storage of 8GB, and after installing a few emulators and a handful of roms I have 1.73GB remaining. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you consider that a single disk Amiga game is no more than about 850k, that’s going to be about 2,000 games before I run out of space! I should in fact be able to fit the entire ZX Spectrum library of about 22,000 games on to the internal memory without running out of space! But for a fiver I can happy expand that space to 64GB! So one way or another, space is not really an issue!

I was surprised that the battery drained as quickly as it did as I played. It’s a large device, and sounds quite empty inside so it’s a shame that more of the internal space hasn’t been devoted to a longer lasting battery. I have read other user reviews that give the battery a four hour continuous usage. I have not yet tested it to the point of running flat myself but will do that and time it; to try and save battery life, I am turning off Wi-Fi while playing games, keeping screen brightness down to about 50% and closing all other apps. Either way, while four hours is not all that long, it’s long enough for several commuter trips, a long train journey or a European flight. It should charge via the USB point on a plane like an iPhone, so I will test that next time I’m on a long-haul.

OTHER FEATURES

I bought the Blaze Tab Plus entirely as a retro gaming device. I don’t know how well it handles newer Android games, nor what it’s like for playing movies and TV on Netflix.

SUMMARY

As a portable retro gaming device I can’t speak more highly of the Blaze Tab Plus!

You should expect to put a tiny bit of time and effort in to the device to get the most from it, but I stress that the effort really is quite minimal and the pay-back is a device with potentially thousands of games and as many retro systems as you can for the Android operating system.

Cobra

I have a bit of a soft spot for the movie Cobra. It’s quite terrible really, but one of those mid-80’s action movies that’s just so watchable. The ZX Spectrum game seems to have almost nothing at-all to do with the movie (the prams?) but is still a good, if difficult game.

The loading screen for the game is really very good on the Spectrum, but here’s my own alternate version.

IMG_2950

Created with Retrospecs