Laser Squad (ZX Spectrum, 1988)

Note: this post is expanded from one in my old blog, The Games of My Life.

From the mind and programming skills of Julian Gollop, author of Chaos, came this masterpiece in 1988: Laser Squad, quite probably the best and most popular turn-based tactical game in the 80s.

Laser Squad - the Assassins make their first move
The Assassins make their first move

If you weren’t around at the time, you may not realize the sensation that Laser Squad was back then. Even though it was a turn-based tactical game, it was, quite uniquely, accepted by many people who’d never touched a strategy game before. I was in school back then, and I remember the game being popular in my class, especially in its two-player mode — and I’m talking about kids (not that I wasn’t one, but I was always… kind of different 🙂 ) whose favorite genres were sports and driving games. Even later on, in the early nineties, the game was still popular among my friends — and, again, most of them didn’t have any interest in strategy games (except, in a few cases, Chaos… you may be noticing a pattern here).

Continue reading Laser Squad (ZX Spectrum, 1988)

Bad Comic Panels #9: “Our Communist overlords will slay us if we fail in our mission!”

"We have no choice! Our Communist overlords will slay us if we fail in our mission!"
Source: Tales of Suspense #50, 1964

Since the Anti-Communism entries in the Bad Comic Panel series have, so far, been about the Soviet Union, I thought that such a “monopoly” would be unfair to our Chinese friends in the 1960s, who have been ignored so far. This, then, is the first of several panels I have already chosen to show that, when it came to crude anti-Communism, Stan Lee and Marvel were equal opportunity stereotypists. 🙂

The panel above shows four fearful Chinese military officers who have been sent to negotiate with the Mandarin, who, interestingly, was a Chinese super-villain but not a Communist; his demeanour and trappings were all from imperial China (at least, as seen by westerners in the 60s). We’ll be seeing more of the four — and the Mandarin himself — in the near future. Meanwhile, I couldn’t be compiling this list and not include such a delicious quote as “Our Communist overlords will slay us if we fail in our mission” — or, translation, Communist leaders are evil (hey, but aren’t you “commies” as well?) and regularly kill underlings for failing. Then again, that comes straight from the official Evil Overlord manual, doesn’t it?

Conversion Wars #1: Post Mortem

As I had mentioned before, the first entry on the Conversion Wars series (Out Run) revealed its format to be far too cumbersome; three long posts for a single game is simply too much.

So, the second entry in the series will be a single post (I haven’t decided on a game yet). After a short intro, there will just be a table with the several ports listed, their scores, a small screenshot (possibly linking to an YouTube video, but on the post it’ll just be an image), and an optional short (1-2 sentences) comment. All of this possibly followed by a conclusion. That’s it.

Any thoughts or suggestions, feel free to comment. 🙂

Conversion Wars #1: Out Run (part 3 of 3: console ports / scores)

(Note: please see parts 1 and 2 for the rest of the ports.)

Not many more to go, now. 🙂 First, let’s look at the Sega Master System port:

We’ve already seen two versions (MSX2 and PC) that appear to be based on this one. All of these are colorful, fast and smooth, but the sprites are smaller than average, the roads seem a bit “empty”, and the music, while decent, isn’t as good as that of most of the US Gold ports. Still, in terms of “fun”, I’d rather play this port than any of the US Gold ones, except perhaps for the C64 one.

Now for the NEC PC Engine (Turbografx 16 in the US) version:

Now we’re talking. 🙂 Have you noticed that, until now, we didn’t have even one Out Run port that looked and played like the original? Even on relatively powerful systems such as the Amiga? This one, however, succeeds. It’s fast, smooth, good looking, and really feels a lot like the arcade game. If there’s anything not great with it, it’s the music, which is again not as good as in most of the US Gold ports.

Considering that the PC Engine is an 8-bit console (though much more powerful than, say, the NES or the Master System, and able to compete with the 16-bit ones), this port, then, is easily the best 8-bit version of Out Run.

But what about 16-bit? Can’t such a machine do at least as good, if not better? Up to now, we didn’t really see it; the best 16-bit version so far would be the PC one, followed by the Atari ST port. Both of them are disappointing in different ways, and neither really looks or plays like the original. Fortunately, there’s yet another 16-bit version, this time for the Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis for the USians), which can do this:

Great port, isn’t it? Fast, smooth, great looking, and plays like Out Run. It’s hard to notice, as it’s so close to the PC Engine version, but the objects seem to be more detailed, the frame rate looks a bit smoother, and there appears to be a little more graphical detail. It would be hard to ask for a better port. Only the music — again — could have been better, but this is probably related to hardware limitations.

No, it isn’t exactly the same game as the arcade, but it’s not that you’d expect such a thing in a home console at the time, right?

Well, in a few years, you would be able to expect it. You’d just need to have a Sega Saturn, and you could play Out Run like this:

This one isn’t really a great achievement, as the Saturn is far more powerful than the original arcade. But I’ve included it here just so you can see what kind of system would eventually be required to have a “perfect” version of an 1986 game at home. 🙂 Also, it finally gets the music right. 🙂

Well, this is getting long, so here are the scores:

FaithfulnessHardware UseFun
ZX Spectrum332
Commodore 64254
Amstrad CPC221
MSX322
MSX2433
Atari ST322
Commodore Amiga312
PC332
Sega Master System443
NEC PC Engine455
Sega Mega Drive455
Sega Saturn55 (*)5

(*) No, the Saturn isn’t used to the fullest, but, as mentioned in the intro, that’s OK as long as it’s a perfect port.

Time Commanders

Time Commanders - logo
"The stakes are high; battle is imminent."

Time Commanders - trying to reproduce the battlefield using blocksWhen I started this blog, one of the conscious decisions I made back then was to avoid the common “look at this cool thing I’ve just found!” posts. The reasons are several: because that tends to “date” posts (i.e. what’s novelty now will be old hat in a couple of months), because that makes a blog little more than a collection of links, and because tons of other blogs already do exactly that.

However, this time I will make an exception to the rule, as I’m “in love” with this thing I’ve very recently found about, and which is being a joy to watch (I have been watching the episodes in order, and I’m currently in the middle of the first season). Besides, it’s not exactly a “current event”, so it won’t really age.

Time Commanders - they've got elephants!Time Commanders is a BBC2 show that ran for two seasons, between  2003 and 2005. In it, four players controlled one army (two as “generals”, two as “lieutenants / captains”) in a classical era battle, with a preliminary version of the Rome: Total War engine (which wasn’t yet released at the time, so Total War fans were actually seeing the upcoming game for the first time, at least during the beginning of the first season). Interestingly, instead of players competing against each other (either solo or in teams), all of them were on the same side; their opponent wasn’t run by an AI, but was instead controlled by (unseen) technicians, instructed to use tactics similar to the actual ones used in that battle. Incidentally, the show took care to select players without video gaming experience, which I think actually makes things more interesting: they don’t see it as a “video game” they have to beat, but as an important battle that actually happened, some 2000 years ago. Which is exactly how one should look at it.

Time Commanders - overhead view of the mapBefore the actual battle, there were mission briefings (shown, again, using the R:TW engine) in which both the team and the audience were told about the historical background for the battle, the generals and forces involved, what was at stake, and which key troops both sides had available. The lieutenants / captains were also responsible for the initial scouting of enemy forces and positions, and for relaying that information to the generals.

Time Commanders - looking at the big screenMeanwhile, two actual historians and/or military instructors (one permanent, the other one rotating between several people from episode to episode) gave more insight on the battle, and commented on the team’s tactics, outside the hearing range of the players. Only after the battle ended would they tell the players what they did rightly and wrongly, and how the battle actually went, historically. Note also that quite often the team would lose the battle, and lose spectacularly; in a way, watching how much some of the players could “blow it” was one of the series’ most entertaining aspects. 🙂

Time Commanders - a lieutenant gives instructions to an operatorIn short, this show — sadly cancelled after only two seasons — combines four things I love: historyvideo gamesstrategy, and British humor. What more could anyone want? 🙂 The episodes don’t seem to be available on DVD or Blu-Ray, unfortunately, but most of them, if not all, are currently on YouTube (just search for “time commanders“), and, of course, if you’re inventive, there are always other places to look for them. I’d still buy the series on DVD, if it were ever released, just to have it in better quality.

By the way, it’s really a shame that there aren’t more shows like this — interesting, not dumbed-down, and actually instructive and educational, but still focused on fun. For instance, even just sticking with this format, there could be shows based on other eras of history — medieval times, the Napoleonic wars, etc.. But, of course, I doubt it’ll happen.

Conversion Wars #1: Out Run (part 2 of 3: 16-bit home computer ports)

(Note: part 1 is here.)

Moving on to 16-bit home computer versions of Out Run, there are just three to look at.

Let’s begin with the one I believe came out first, the Atari ST version, released by US Gold in 1988:

Oh dear. As you can see… not very good. I’m pretty sure that this is the Spectrum / Amstrad CPC code simply ported to the ST, without using any of its more advanced features or any programming tricks. The game feels exactly like the Spectrum version, the roads are exactly the same, and so on; only the graphics are new (and pretty bad for an ST), and the game is faster simply because the CPU is faster (but still not as fast or smooth as the hypothetical “7 Mhz Spectrum”, which you can try by setting a Speccy emulator to 200% speed). Note also that the music is exactly the same as in the Spectrum version, which makes sense as both machines have the same sound hardware; however, the ST, because of its extra speed and storage, could have used samples (like many of its games did), and no such thing happened here. Or, you know, actually include the third song from the arcade, since there’s memory and disk space to spare. In short: another lazy port. It’s simply the Spectrum game running on a faster machine and with more color.

Now, for the Amiga version, also by US Gold, released in 1988:

Ouch! It’s the Atari ST version, with different music — this time, the sound chip is different, so they couldn’t just port the Spectrum tunes –, but, in my opinion, it also sounds worse — which is even sadder when you consider how good Amiga music often was. Also, again, it’s the same code as the ST version, with no Amiga features used — which means the game is even slower, as the Amiga’s CPU runs at a lower frequency than the ST’s; usually that was more than compensated by the Amiga’s co-processors, but it’s obvious that they’re standing idle, here. Once again, an incredibly lazy port.

Incidentally, the Amiga version allows sound effects and music at the same time, but the author of the video turned them off before starting the game, and with good reason: they’re terrible. Also, the game seems able to play only one sound effect at the time, so, for instance, when you’re skidding, the engine sound is actually temporarily turned off. On an Amiga. 😯

Finally, we come to the PC (MS-DOS) version, released in 1989 by Sega:

Much like the MSX2 version (see part 1), also by Sega, it’s closer to the Master System version, with little resemblance to the US Gold ports (which, except for the C64 version, all seem to share the same algorithms and maps). It’s fast, smooth and colorful, but the sprites are smaller, and the game feels “emptier”, both in terms of roadside objects and other cars (the smallness of the sprites probably helps). Being an old PC game, it’s limited in terms of hardware, supporting only up to EGA graphics (16-color, with probably the worst palette you can imagine) and PC speaker sound.

It’s probably the best of the three 16-bit home computer ports… but still not a very good one, in my opinion. To see one (if we don’t count the extremely playable but not very “Outrunnish” C64 port), we’ll have look among console ports, which is the subject of part 3.

Conversion Wars #1: Out Run (part 1 of 3: 8-bit home computer ports)

Note: this entry has proven itself much longer than I had intended; I had concieved of a post per game, but this one, as it is now, will require three! Obviously, I need to play with this format in the future — perhaps a table of ports, screenshots, scores, and a 1- or 2-sentence comment. Still, here’s my first attempt — which may end up being the only one in this format.

Welcome to the first entry in Winterdrake’s new Conversion Wars series, where I’ll be comparing the various home computer and console ports of several popular games (it’s only fun if they had a lot of conversions, after all). For details, please see the intro. The first entry, following on my previous post from another series, is Sega’s Out Run. This entry will actually be split into 3 separate parts: one (this one) focusing on 8-bit home computer ports, another one where I’ll look at 16-bit home computer ports, and a third one about console ports.

So, Out Run. In the arcades, it was a very popular game in the late 80s, and a big part of it was its atmosphere. As I mentioned in my last post, linked above, Out Run wasn’t about some “highly competitive race”; instead, it was about driving an expensive cabriolet sports car, a girl at your side, in several almost paradisiac scenarios based on the United States — beginning, very famously, with a road parallel to a beach. Providing at least a fraction of that sensation, then, would be essential to any port; by turning Out Run into a generic driving game where you couldn’t even tell where you were supposed to be (“is this a beach or a snowy mountain?”), you’d be completely missing the point.

A feeling of speed would be essential, as it is for any driving simulation. If you can read “250 km/h” on the screen, and yet it looks and feels like you’re driving a tank, then you should go back to the drawing board.

Out Run was also famous for its graphics and music, and, therefore, reproducing at least some part of both should be a priority.

So, how do the several ports compare?

Continue reading Conversion Wars #1: Out Run (part 1 of 3: 8-bit home computer ports)

Conversion Wars: Intro

Welcome to yet another series on Winterdrake! Just a little bit of personal info: I subscribe to the UK Retro Gamer magazine; among other reasons, because, unlike any other gaming magazine, I don’t ever have to worry about it getting old: it is old, intentionally. Nostalgia is a beautiful emotion.

Anyway, in that mag, one of my favorite bits — which doesn’t even appear in every issue, but the magazine is still great without it ((if you care about any of my “retro gaming” posts at all, look it up, and, no, the previous link isn’t an “affiliate” one)) is the comparison of the several ports / versions of a game, whether the game originated in arcades (common in the late 80s / early 90s) or in a particular computer system. I really love that part: to look at screenshots and descriptions of how a game was ported / interpreted on each system, how it played, and, sometimes, even the stories behind a couple of ports. Call me weird; I really love this; it’s one of the few times I am able to “feed” several parts of myself: video games, computer systems, nostalgia, and history.

So, I thought about creating a series of posts based exactly on that.

Typically, there will be one post per game, with a few exceptions where a particular game will need two posts (say, one about home computer ports and the other about console ports). I intend to pick the games myself, mostly from the ones I remember — and I already have a bunch of them in mind –, though I’m always open to suggestions.

And, because I grew up with magazines that bestowed numerical ratings on different aspects of games (e.g. graphics, sound, gameplay, etc.), I’ll do the same. For now, to make this simple, my ratings will be just between 1 and 5, for “terrible”, “bad”, “average”, “good” and “great”. And the aspects I’ll rate each conversion in are:

  1. faithfulness: how well a port reproduces its original version, in terms of levels, features, and so on. In almost every case, there is an original version, even if that’s not immediately obvious. If there really isn’t one, then all ports get a maximum score (5) here, as will happen if we’re talking about the original version of a game. ((e.g. Out Run ports will be compared to the original arcade version, which won’t be included here. But, say, Cybernoid ports will be compared to the original ZX Spectrum version, which will be included as a “port”.))
  2. hardware use: how much a particular conversion takes advantage of the system it runs on. In other words, top scores for “this system couldn’t really do much better than this”, and lowest scores for “this computer/console could have handled a much better version”. Exception: if a version reproduces the original perfectly, it will get a maximum score here, even if the original hardware was much more primitive (e.g. a port for modern systems of a 30-year-old game). ((for instance, an Xbox 360 version of Pac-Man which emulated the original perfectly wouldn’t be penalized, even though the 360 is capable of much more than an 8-bit 1980 arcade machine. On the other hand, if the Amiga port of Space Harrier plays slower than the Spectrum 48K version, doesn’t really look much better, and has loading pauses between levels that the Spectrum port was able to avoid…))
  3. fun: in a world where this game wasn’t a port at all, where there were no other versions of it, and where you were playing it on its merits alone, instead of pining for the fjords the original, how enjoyable would this particular version be to play (assuming you enjoyed the genre)?

For instance, suppose you’re talking about a conversion of a beat ’em up game, and not only doesn’t it include most of the features of the original, but in fact it doesn’t look or play much like it… yet it’s still a great, enjoyable game by itself. It’d get a low score in faithfulness, but a high score in fun. On the other hand, if a port reproduced every feature and level of the original, but played like a dog, its scores would be the other way around.

Bad Games I Played a Lot #2: Out Run (ZX Spectrum)

Ah, Out Run. Anyone who was a gamer in the eighties and early nineties can’t ever forget it.

Out Run (arcade)
Out Run (original arcade version, 1986)

It wasn’t just that it was technically impressive — and it was, for the time. The main appeal of Out Run was that it wasn’t a typical “racing” game in which professional drivers run against each other in specially prepared tracks or sections, such as a Formula 1 or rally race. Out Run was different: it was about a guy trying to impress a girl in his Ferrari Testarossa, through several North American scenarios. It wasn’t a “race”, there were no “opponents”; the other cars on the road were just normal traffic. Even advertisements at the time, instead of talking about some “ultimate driving challenge”, just said that you’d almost be able to feel the wind in your hair. In short, it was a very different driving game, and there’s a reason people still remember it well.

So, naturally, there were ports for home computers and consoles. Nowadays, it’s easy to try them all out, using emulators and such, but at the time the teenager I was didn’t have any options other than to play it on his trusty ZX Spectrum (a 128K +3, at the time). In other words, I didn’t really have other versions of the game to compare the Speccy port to (OK, there was the original arcade version, but nobody expected a home computer port at the time to compare to that!). If I had, maybe I wouldn’t have played it so much. 🙂

It looked like this:

Out Run (ZX Spectrum)
Out Run (ZX Spectrum, 1987)

Continue reading Bad Games I Played a Lot #2: Out Run (ZX Spectrum)

Bad Comic Panels #8: “Da! That is why you will never be dictator!”

Khrushchev: "Da! That is why you will never be dictator!"
Source: Fantastic Four #17, 1963

Unlike other entries in the Bad Comic Panels series, this one’s main quote is from an actual historical figure. I really love how the morally simplistic comics of the 60s (and earlier) depicted their opponents — such as Communists, in this case — as “hi, I’m evil!” card-carrying villains. 🙂 In this particular case, we have a dictator describing himself as such — which is rarer than you might think.

Other things to appreciate here:

  • the Commies are depicted as not just being in competition with the US, or “the capitalistic countries” in general, but as actually living just for beating them. They actually sit around a radio set waiting for news of their counterparts’ demise. Guys, get a life, will ya? ((in Soviet Russia — and, here, this is actually appropriate –, life gets YOU!!))
  • not only that, but two of them are shown holding glasses of wine or champagne. Nice! 🙂 Though I’d have though vodka would have been more appropriate…
  • can you really see Khrushchev’s “number twos” addressing him as “Comrade K”? 🙂 And don’t tell me that this was a case of censorship, as, if they printed comics like this, they weren’t particularly worried about what the Kremlin would think of them, or how it would affect US-USSR relations…
  • “Comrade K” is actually depicted relatively benignly here, being the only one among the Communists in the room with a brain. Very different from an Iron Man comic from the same era ((the one with the origin of the Crimson Dynamo)), where he is presented as a sniveling, treacherous coward (we actually see his thought balloons)… and fatter and uglier, too!
  • is the guy on the left, the one wearing purple, supposed to be based on Trotsky? He had been dead for 23 years when this comic was published, you know… Or perhaps that look was based on an “archetype” of the “evil Commie intellectual” common during the 50s-60s… anyone?