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Saturday, 19 April 2014

Classic of the Month - Rampart


Manufacturer:Atari
Genre:Strategy
Board:
Year:1990

A few years ago, when gaming on smartphones took off in a big way, a new sub-genre of games emerged, the tower defence game. These touchscreen-friendly affairs lacked the complexity of fully blown strategy games, but still provided enough of a mental work out to be fun and challenging. There are hundreds of tower defence games out there, with titles such as Plants vs Zombies, Defence Grid and Kingdom Rush being among the best the genre has to offer. Bizarrely, despite being a sub-genre to begin with, there is now a sub-genre of tower defence games, which include elements of first and third person shoot 'em ups. These include the brilliant Orcs Must Die, Monday Night Combat and Sanctum. 

It would be easy to think of tower defence as being a relatively new genre, born out of the need to create strategy games that aren't as demanding as games like Star Craft, Civilisation or Total War, but like most modern games, tower defence games can trace their roots back to arcade gaming. And for tower defence, Atari's Rampart is that first game.

The game is set in some unspecified medieval period and charges players with both defending and expanding their territory. At the start of the game, players must choose one of several castles situated on a coastline. When they make their choice, an initial rampart is built around the castle and players are given a handful of seconds to place their cannons along the walls. In true tower defence style, the placement of your guns is key to effectively defending your castle, because after that comes the onslaught. The nature of this onslaught depends on whether you play alone or against others.

In single player mode, your castle walls are initially attacked by a fleet of ships, attempting to land on the shore around your castle. As the ships come in, they fire their cannons at you - and in turn you fire back at them. Unlike (most) modern tower defence games, you actually get to aim. If you were lucky enough to find a trackball version of this game, that was a considerably easier task than with the joystick version. Once the enemies are vanquished, you are given a few seconds to place a number of randomly shaped walls. You could use these to thicken your walls or alternatively expand your territory and eventually capture additional castles. You're then awarded a few more cannons to mount and the whole thing starts again. If you successfully fend off the invaders, you get to move on to a new territory and things start to get tougher.

If the invading ships make it to land, they then have the opportunity to overrun undefended castles. Fail to protect your home castle and it's game over. The video below shows just how quickly things can unravel, once the invaders make land.



In multiplayer mode, things are a little different. This time there are no ships, just two or three territories going at it, building ramparts, placing cannons and knocking seven shades of chivalry out of each other. Here's a video of three people using netplay on MAME to play multiplayer rampart - for 40 mins.


Rampart is a game I didn't really appreciate it when I first played in the arcade at The Old Hall, but it is undeniably a great game. It requires quick wits and quick reflexes, something of a rarity in arcade gaming.

MTW

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

This is Hardcore 01 - Defender


On the whole, games on home platforms are made to be completed, while arcade games were not. There is a simple reason for this: money! The quicker you finish your game on your Gameboy or Megadrive or PlayStation or XBO, the sooner you'll go out and buy another; equally, the quicker an arcade game depletes your lives to zero, the sooner you'll jam in another 20p. There are exceptions to this rule in both camps (something anyone who's played From Software's Souls games on modern consoles can testify to), but I finish most games I buy, while I've only ever finished a few arcade games. However, even among the hard-as-nails world of arcade games, there are those that are famous (or infamous) for being truly hardcore. So for 2014's regular special feature (and in honour of the release of Dark Souls II this month), we're going to look at some of those games, starting with the one that kick started the trend, Williams' Defender.

Before I talk about how and why Defender was so tough, I want to give you a quick history lesson. Released in 1980, Defender was the first game to be developed by pinball developer Eugene Jarvis. Despite his inexperience, Jarvis created a master piece that went on to be Williams' most successful game. Jarvis himself is now a legend in the industry, responsible for some of the all time classics like Robotron and Smash TV. His current company, Raw Thrills, is one of the few video arcade game manufacturer's left today.

Now for Defender. It's highly unlikely you haven't played Defender at this point, but for those who haven't here's a quick summary. It's a horizontally scrolling shoot 'em up, with wrap-around levels, where you have to protect the humanoids wandering around the terrain from the invading alien forces. Given a chance, these aliens will pick up a humanoid and take them to the top of the screen, where they turn into fast-moving mutants. Preventing you from doing your job there are lots of different alien types and with each wave new types are introduced. To help you do your job you have a laser gun, a hyperspace and a smart bomb, the latter of which had limited capacity.

That all sounds fairly humdrum, but Defender is far from humdrum -- in fact playing it is downright stressful. If you play it on a home platform there are several major factors contributing to this sense of duress.
  • There are lots of aliens and multi abductions happening at any one time.
  • Everything about the game is fast! You're fast, the aliens are fast (especially the zombies) and the abductions are fast. 
  • For every humanoid abducted, the resulting mutants made it harder.
  • Saving a humanoid didn't just mean killing the abducting alien, you also had to catch the humanoid mid-fall, otherwise they were pulverised on the terrain and turned into Pulp.
  • Failing to protect the humanoids caused all remaining Lander aliens to turn into Mutants, so if you were bad at the game, it only got harder!
If you ever played the game in the arcade there was another factor: its non-conventional controls, as can be seen in the image below:


As you can see from the arrows above and below the joystick, it only goes up and down. To go forwards you need to use the thrust button on the right, between the fire and smart bomb buttons. That's all fine, but it gets tricky when it comes to using reverse, which is next to the joystick. A skilled player could possibly hit this with the side of their left thumb, but it's quite unnatural. The biggest problem of all is with the hyperspace button, which is in the middle of the control panel. This meant you had to let go with one of your hands to use a power that was already fraught with danger (Eugene Jarvis himself is on record as saying using hyperspace had a 25% chance of getting you killed). If you translated that to a modern Xbox or PlayStation controller controller, it would be like having reverse on the Back/Select button and hyperspace on a different controller sat on your lap!

Let's look at Defender in action:



Sadly, although Defender was available on the XBLA marketplace, when Midway (who distributed the game in the West) went under, it was pulled. Fear not, its legacy lives on in countless clones. For Xbox 360 owners I would recommend Orbitron Revolution on the Xbox Live Indie Games marketplace (which I reviewed here). Also on both XBLIG and Steam there's the cute and hilarious Aqua Kitty: Milk Mine Defender. And for those hip kids with the next gen consoles, PlayStation 4 owners get the most recent homage, RESOGUN for free with a PlayStation Plus account. I covered RESOGUN in brief here a few months ago.

For another look into the challenges of playing Defender and how playing difficult games is a unique pleasure, check out 'The History of Defender: The Joys of Difficult Games' on Gamasutra from 2009.

MTW

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Homage Review - Twin Tiger Shark

Twin Tiger Shark? Was that an arcade game? Why does that name sound familiar?

Perhaps because this World War I-themed vertical scrolling shmup, the latest by indie developers Wide Pixel Games, is inspired by a number of Toaplan's shmups from the late 80s and early 90s. To name just a few, this is a homage to games like TWIN Hawk, TIGER Heli and Flying SHARK. I discussed a number of these games in my A Brief History of  World War II shoot 'em ups article a few years ago and they form an important part of the history of arcade gaming.

However, Wide Pixel's game goes beyond being a mere homage, such as Locomalito's Hydorah does for Gradius. If anything, this is a clone, almost a bare-faced rip off. But do not let that stop you checking this one out, because unlike the dozens of Flappy Bird clones that flooded the iOS and Android markets after the original was yanked, Twin Tiger Shark is a quality product from top to bottom.

I'll confess before I go too much further that while I enjoyed the Twin Hawk/Cobra and Tiger Heli games, I was never a massive fan of the Shark games. They were okay, but they were not the best Toaplan had to offer and nor did they live up to their nearest rivals, Capcom's 194x series. Thankfully, while Twin Tiger Shark looks like Flying Shark, it plays more like Toaplan's other shmups. It features all the key ingredients you'd expect: three weapon modes, bombs, a squadron of helpers (a la Twin Hawk), a play field that scrolls partially left and right, even medals (in the form of stars) to collect after destroying enemies. The enemies themselves are generic to World War-themed shmups (other bi-planes and tanks for the most part), but backing all of this up are great enemy patterns and tight controls. Despite being hard, it rarely feels unfair, because of those last two ingredients. Mistakes are yours, not because the game is cheap and that only encourages you to keep trying.

All told there are 6 stages, but in true hardcore style, it's very difficult (even in the so called "Easy" mode) and there are no continues, so you have to get good if you want to finished the game. This is something I have not done yet, but that's often the way with these games and its not going to stop them being fun. There is some innovation here. When you upload a highs core it displays a QR code for you to scan [with your phone or tablet], which will take you to the web page for the leader boards. It's a nice way of overcoming the lack of built-in leader boards for XBLIG games.

So should you bother with Twin Tiger Shark? Absolutely and not just because it's only around 69p. I have not done a game review since the Xbox 360 port of Akai Katana, almost 2 years ago. Anybody who knows their stuff will see the connection here (least of all the setting), so it says something that I feel compelled to write about this blatant copy cat. I'll be honest, I actually think this could be a better game than many of Toaplan's shmups from the 80s and 90s. It looks a lot older and it has an old school mentality but there is a quality here, a smoothness and precision, that only modern games offer. It is as tight and rewarding as some of the best shoot 'em ups around and is probably the best indie shmup I've played since Final Form's superb Jamestown. The only serious criticism I have is the lack of co-op play, everything else is great.

Oh, and if you're one of those crazy people who bought an Ouya, you can also get it on that.

Plays like

  • Twin Hawk
  • Tiger Heli
  • Flying Shark
  • Anything else by Toaplan

Highs

  • Tight controls let you weave through the well structured enemy patterns with skill -- if you have it
  • Authentic 8-bit arcade experience. The music is particularly brilliant.
  • Arguably a better playing game than some of the games that inspired it
  • Innovative use of QR codes for high scores
  • Costs less than a Mars Bar.

Lows

  • Not for the faint-hearted
  • Despite the name, this is not a two player game. 
Twin Tiger Shark is out on XBLIG and Ouya priced £0.69.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Classic of the Month - Aztarac


Manufacturer:Centuri
Developer:Centuri
Genre:Shoot 'em up (multi-directional)
Year:1983

Early arcade machines had some great made-up words for titles. Galaxian, Gradius, Xevious, Darius, Gyruss, Gravitar, Amidar, Varth, Gryzor, Vulgus, Bosconian, the list goes on. In fact there are so many to choose from that a few years ago I started using them for the names of my characters in RPGs. A case in point is Blizzard's sublime dungeon crawler, Diablo III, in which I called my wizard Aztarac. But what is Aztarac? You'd be forgiven for not knowing, because this month's classic is very rare and its story is tinged with tragedy.

The game itself is very similar to other multi-directional shoot 'em ups of the era, such as Time Pilot, Sinistar and the aforementioned Bosconian, but with a control scheme more in common with Robotron. The objective was not only to destroy all of the enemies, but also defend a series of star bases (represented by 4 diamonds in the centre of the play field). If all four bases get destroyed, it's game over. You (appear) to have an unlimited number of lives in which to do this, which is unusual for a game of this period. Along with your turreted star fighter, you can also do a radar sweep of the area to find the next swarm of enemies. The risk in this is that the radar scan covers the screen while ever you have button 2 held down. So when the scan reveals the next swarm is already on top of your base, it's hard not to panic. The radar must have looked brilliant on the original arcade cabinet, as the bezel had a circular, convex area in the middle, just like a radar scope.

The game's visuals are provided by simple, but elegant colour vector graphics. The control scheme is another pistol-grip joystick and dial combo, which means it does not translate well to modern controls when emulated. And if you want to play it, emulation is the only way to go. I know I normally admonish emulation as nothing but an excuse for piracy, but according to www.centuri.net only 500 Aztarac cabinets were ever made. This is no doubt part of the reason why Dennis Bartlett of Iowa, USA, has held the official high score of 142,390 since the 11th February 1984 -- less than a year after the game was launched and 30 years ago this month (hence it being our classic this month).

Sadly, the game's creator, Tim Stryker, committed suicide 18 years ago. To quote Centuri's website:
"On the night of Aug. 6, Tim Stryker, 41, pulled off a remote road in the Blue Mountains in northwest Colorado, stepped out of his car, put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger."
Apparently nobody knows why Stryker did this. Altogether, a sad tale for what is still a genuinely fun and strategic shoot 'em up to play. Let's check a video of it in action.



MTW

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Classic of the Month - Moon Cresta


Manufacturer:Nichibutsu, Sega/Gremlin and Taito
Developer:Nichibutsu
Genre:Shoot 'em up
Year:1980

When people think about early shoot 'em ups, games like Space Invaders, Galaxians and Galaga naturally come to mind, but there were lots and lots of others out there that were just as good, if not even a little bit better than [some of] those seminal games. For my money, Moon Cresta is one such game. If you haven't played it, at first glance you could be forgiven for thinking it's a Galaga knock off, with its looping formations of alien space ships and ability to team up your fighters for increased fire power, but it actually precedes Namco's classic by a year (or there abouts).

The game begins with a big, Flash Gordon-esque rocket emerging from the bottom of the screen. The tip of which detaches and is revealed to be your fighter - the rest of the ship returns to the bottom of the screen. For the first few rounds the player is faced by what appears to be just four aliens, but on shooting any one of them you discover they split in half and continue to dive bomb you. And tricky buggers they are too, looping and diving in very erratic patterns. The next couple of rounds are your typical looping swarms and everything appears to be quite mundane. However, clearing these two rounds leads to the bonus round, where you get the opportunity to dock with the middle section (or stage as the game calls it) of the big ship from the beginning. Succeed and for the next couple of rounds you have a three-way shot. As you'd expect, things get tougher to meet your new found fire power. If that wasn't enough, the next round throws fast and vast asteroids at you, which come careering down the screen at sharp angles. It's possible to survive this round just by avoiding the space rocks, but what self-respecting arcade gamer would do that when there are points to be earned for risking death to destroy them? After the asteroids is another ship-docking bonus round, with the third stage of the big ship now becoming available. Dock successfully and you have a third-tier monster capable of firing 5 missiles. Sounds great, but in truth you're now a considerably bigger target for the kamikaze aliens.

Dying in Moon Cresta has some interesting effects. Firstly, the three stages of the space ship are also your lives, so blow up the first stage and you are given the duel missile second stage to use, and so on. When you've grouped up two or more stages, when you are shot any one of the three stages can be destroyed, so it's possible to end up with just the bottom two stages or even the the top and bottom stages. All of which somehow made dying more interesting that just being given an extra life.

Another slightly unusual thing about this game is that there were variations produced by Nichibutsu, Taito Sega and Gremlin, each with slightly different rules sets and attack formations. These, according to Wikipedia, were the differences:

Taito Moon Cresta


  • Wave 1+2 Eyes hover until several are shot.
  • Birds 5+6 Birds are never invisble.
  • Wave 9+10 Arrow Ships start with 1 flying downwards on first round and increase by 1 each round i.e. second time round there are 2 etc. until all 10 fly down at once.
  • Aliens slow down in waves 1-4 if player killed.
  • Free game at 30000.
  • Arrow Ships fly faster at end of wave 4 plus from then on last alien flies faster i.e. round 5.
  • Similar to Taito is Fantazia with different Sprite colours.

Sega/Gremlin Moon Cresta


  • Wave 1+2 Eyes do not hover.
  • Aliens speed up on 3rd round.
  • 2 Arrow Ships drop on first round.
  • No invisible Birds.
  • Aliens do not slow down in waves 1-4 if player killed.
  • Free game 30000.

Centuri Eagle Moon Cresta Clone

Different sprites used throughout but essentially the same as Taito version except aliens speed up on 6th round.

Nichibutsu Moon Cresta


  • As Gremlin plus: Last Eye on waves 1-4 moves differently
  • Last Bird is invisible Wave 9+10 Arrow Ships start with 3 flying downwards on first round and increase by 1 each round i.e. second time round there are 4 etc. until all 10 fly down at once.
  • Arrow Ships fly faster at end of wave 3 plus from then on last alien flies faster i.e. round 4.

Super Moon Cresta

Same as Taito revision only aliens fire 1 bullet with increasing speed each wave plus player ships shoot faster.

The game got a sequel called Terra Cresta, which played more like Xevious and incorporated the original's stage docking as mid-level power ups. The video below from MamePlayer is of the Nichibutsu version and shows the first cycle of levels.



MTW

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

MMXIV

Happy New Year, arcade fans. This is a pre-programmed post, as it's my daughter's birthday today. Happy birthay, Chick Pea!

2013 was a great year for this blog. My Twitter follower count shot up, thanks to some careful use of hash tags, my Worth a Look feature allowed me to talk about lots of modern games with retro vibes and I managed to tell you all about 120 of my favourite arcade games, thanks to my Top 10 feature.

So what have I got planned for 2014? Not much, I'm afraid to say. This year is shaping up to be crazy at work, plus I'm in the middle of a major personal project which sadly has to take precedence over blogging about old arcade games. I will still be putting up posts, just nothing routine (not even Classics of the Month, although I my do one for the road). But the great thing about writing a retro blog is I rarely have to worry about specific dates and deadlines.

So I hope you all have a great year and if you got an Xbox One or a PS4 for Christmas, take a moment to find something retro to play and don't forget how important those early games still are today.

Bye for now

MTW

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Top 10 licenced games

It's nearly Christmas, the decorations have been adorning shops since Halloween, the cheesy songs are playing on the radio and everywhere you look there are adverts for toys, gadgets, chocolates, booze, food, DVDs, books, games, you name it. With this in mind, I thought I'd end my run of top 10s genres with licensed games.

Video games have been part of the merchandise for TV shows, movies and toys for a long, long time. These days the term "licensed game" is generally regarded with derision, but once upon a time that wasn't always the case and there were plenty of classic arcade games that were also nothing more than merchandise for something else. Sticking to my rule of one game per franchise (sorry, Marvel), here is my top 10:

Star Wars


Let's start the show with a show stopper! Released in 1980 (the same year as the best Star Wars movie of all), this vector graphics X-Wing simulator set the tone for decades of Star Wars games to come. Despite the psychedelically-coloured graphics, the cabinet, the yoke controls and a samples from the movie meant this was as evocative as any games based on the classic franchise could hope to be. It's probably one of the most highly regarded arcade games of all time, let alone licensed ones.

RoboCop 2


Movie trailers are such delicious teases. I remember when the trailers for RoboCop 2 came out and thinking the antagonist robot, Kane, looked awesome. I can remember recording Film '90 just so I could replay the snippets of RoboCop battling Kane. My 15 year-old self was dizzy with excitement to see the film and sadly I had to wait for several years.

Data East had made an arcade game for the first RoboCop film, but where as that film was superior to its sequel, the sequel to the game was much better. From the gorgeous, sharp graphics to the novel little set pieces (such as forcing the truck back against a wall to crush it, as pictured above), this game let the player re-enact loads of key elements of RoboCop. At times, as a video game character he felt a little stiff, but the ability to shoot in a different direction to the one you were moving in (there was a button to shoot left and one to shoot right) did compensate for his rigidity some what.

WWF Super Stars


"I am a real American, doo doo doo dar dum dee doo dar." Sorry, where was I, oh yeah, WWF Super Stars hit the arcades at the same time as I first discovered "American wrestling". Although this game had a limited roster it did at least feature venerable favourites of the era Hulk Hogan, Randy "Macho Man" Savage, "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, Ultimate Warrior and Big Boss Man (a favourite of mine at the time) among others. The game features lots of hallmark moves and the context-sensitive controls mean that with just two buttons and a joystick, each wrestler has a pretty good repertoire. The controls were a bit woolly to be honest, but this was as much a game of atmosphere as anything else and it captured the over-the-top action of 80s wrestling brilliantly. And given I only got to see wrestling when I went to a friend's house who had satellite TV, this game formed a major part of my childhood wrestling fanaticism.

Aliens


Man alive were there some great movies in the 80s and one of the best was James Cameron's Aliens. There were a number of arcade games made out of the franchise, but this (as far as I know) was the first. You take control of Ripley (with player 2 controlling who I can only assume was Hicks) as they try to rescue Newt from the alien infestation on LV426. There are one or two suspect aliens in this game, which I don't believe ever appeared in any of the movies, including weird bat creatures and mutants, but it's still a blast.

Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara


Capcom made a shed load of side scrolling beat 'em ups in the 90s, though few managed to better their classic Final Fight. However, this D&D brawler's use of simple RPG mechanics, including an inventory (something that was very rare in arcade games), makes it stand out from the pack. Of course it has all the staples of the genre: elves, dwarves, wizards, rangers, paladins, you name it. And all wrapped in a lovely bit of hack 'n' slash action. This game is now available of XBLA and PSN as part of a double-pack with its predecessor, Tower of Doom, both of which are great.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom


Talking of classic 80s movies, the original Indiana Jones trilogy might be my favourite 80s trilogy; there isn't a dud in the pack. Many people say Temple of Doom was a let down, but the film's cheesy morbidity delighted me as a kid ("Ahh, chilled monkey brains!") and the mine cart chase was superb. As with some other movies in this list, I played the game long before seeing the film. The Temple of Doom game was in the arcade at the Old Hall, so I played it a LOT. There's not a lot to the game and if you aren't bothered about high scores you can always play it in easy mode and get a feel for the whole thing in just a few minutes, but in that short time you do get to play through many of the movies most memorable sequences, including the mine cart chase and the fight over the lava pit.

The Simpsons


There is a pattern to this list of games. WWF, Simpsons, D&D, Indiana Jones and Tron (see below) are all franchises I knew about because of the games as much (or something rather than) the source material. I didn't get to watch Simpson's until the late 90s, when my parents finally got cable TV, but because of this game I knew precisely who Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie were. The game itself was a madcap brawler, with each member of the family sporting their own special (and canonically accurate) moves. Marge's use of a vacuum cleaner could be seen as sexist, but it was funny to see one used (quite literally) in anger.

X-Men: Children of Atom


Here we are again, Capcom churning out loads of versions of basically the same game. Over the years they've made loads of Marvel-themed fighting games, primarily ones incorporating either Street Fighter characters or other Capcom characters. However, I prefer the purity of this super hero-only instalment, even if the roster of fighters is much reduced from the other games.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles


What boy in the late-80s and early 90s didn't love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (or Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, as they were known here in the UK)? I never read the comic, but I watched the cartoon and loved it. However, it was decidedly lacking in actual ninja action, with the turtles usually dispatching Shredder's foot soldiers with a bowl of spaghetti or a rubbish bin. So when the game let you wield each turtle's signature weapon (katana, bo staff, sai and nunchuks), what fan wouldn't lap it up?

Tron


This is an important game for me, because although I had played video games before it was this game, above all others, that made me fall in love with arcade gaming. It was so futuristic, with its neon paint and glowing pistol-grip joystick. In an arcade with a black light (which in my opinion is an essential piece of equipment for any arcade) this cabinet was stunning to behold.

It's 30 years since I first played this game and sadly its bespoke controls do not map to modern controllers very well at all. Whether it's on MAME or on XBLA, there is no good version to play, other than the original. As much as I love Street Fighter, if I had to have just one arcade machine, it would be Tron cabinet.

And that's it, all of the top 10 games by genre. I probably won't publish anything else this side of Christmas, so until next time, Merry Christ and a Happy New Year.

MTW