Saturday, 28 February 2015

GROW: Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior

Developer(s)Palace Software
Publisher(s)Palace Software (Europe), Epyx (North America)
Platform(s)Commodore 64,  (also ported to Acorn Electron, Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Apple II, Atari ST, BBC Micro, MS-DOS, ZX Spectrum)
Release date(s)1987
Genre(s)Fighting game
Mode(s)Single-player, and two-player versus
DistributionFloppy disk, compact audio cassette

1987 was an important year for fans of fighting games.  We were in the middle of a flood of amazing side scrolling beat 'em ups in the arcades, with games like Double Dragon, Shinobi and Renegade showing us a future full of cool moves and lots of enemies on screen.  But there was another game released that year in arcades that would pretty much go unnoticed but would be a harbinger of things to come: Street Fighter.  The promise of one on one fighting glory, with complex defensive and offensive moves (something the side scrollers didn't really deal with) would flourish into a genre all its own just a few years later.

On home computers though, this more complex style of violence was quickly growing in popularity (in no small part due to home microcomputer limitations on sprite numbers on screen and the need for more long lasting gaming experiences).  1987 would see the launch of two seminal titles in this genre (and no, Ninja Hamster was not one of them), IK+ and Barbarian!

While IK+ concentrated on martial arts and the innovative one-on-one-on-one mechanic, Barbarian whisked players away into a Robert E. Howard inspired land of sword and sorcery.  You take on the role of a nameless barbarian, whose goal, according to the manual, is to defeat the sorcerer's demonic guardians, confront Drax himself, kill the bugger and save Princess Mariana and prevent "unspeakable doom" from befalling the people of the Jewelled City.  It's all very melodramatic when you think about it...

The game consists of two loads (the main medium of the game was cassette tapes).  The first load (side A) was the two player variant with practice modes and two nice backgrounds, one in a forest and the other in front of volcanoes.  The second load was the single player game and involved facing off increasingly difficult mirror images of yourself (with colored shirts) while Drax and the captured Princess watch on.  After defeating seven of these clones, the player must face off against Drax who can hurl magic projectiles at you.  One hit will kill Drax and after this you are rewarded with Princess Mariana thanking you, "big boy".

But let's face it, one on one fighting games have never been about single player campaigns even in their infancy, and the two player mode is where this game shines... and boy does it shine!  For 1987 the unbelievable rotoscoped graphics, smooth animation, excellent responses and complexity of the moves were unprecedented.

Let's start by looking at the moves.  16 options were available, 8 without pressing the lone fire button and 8 with.  Besides forward and backward walking, you could jump up (no giant saltos through the air here, just a realistic jump up), a high and low block, forward and backward rolling on the ground (working like a sweep in Mortal Kombat), and a crouch (which also allowed for attacks).  The attacks available were as benign as a head butt or a kick, medium attacks such as a high, medium and low sword swings and finally the specialty moves, Web of Death (multiple fast sword swings, creating a windmill effect), the overhead chop (powerful blow to the head) and the Flying Neck Chop (an aerial salto turn that if timed right was an instant decapitation... timing was extremely difficult but often a necessary hail mary move if you were low on energy).  This variety of moves made choosing the right one at the right moment imperative as well as understanding how they could be used together.

The player sprites were rotoscoped based on footage of the game's designer Steve Brown,  tracing the figures off a TV screen, the complex sequences of actions were brought to computers.  The fact that all the enemies (except on the Spectrum where they looked like hooded satanist variants of the player) were clones of the player sprite was a bit disheartening but not unexpected at the time.  In addition to the movement, the game also gave us blood splatters (albeit not over the top ones like later 16 bit games) and the famous decapitation animation.  This meant that once the game was loaded no further load times would stop the endless action  and countless bouts with your buddies. 

In addition to the character sprites, lush background images and beautifully animated side bar snakes were added to the games look.  The final touch, at the end of each round, was a small green bipedal monster who would come out, grab the lifeless body of the losing fighter, apparently laugh or yell to his wife to start the pot boiling because dinner was on its way, and drag the loser's body off screen.  It was grim and nasty and oh so much fun to see over and over again.

While not as advanced as later games, Barbarian gave us a real feel for what fighting games could be.  Deep strategic battles, beautiful graphics, gory violence and... oh, yeah, I wrote a whole review of Barbarian without mentioning Maria Whitaker, the hotty on the cover that caused massive outrage back in the day... how did I miss that?  Or the fact that the U.S. release was called Death Sword and had some beefy guy sans hotty on the cover?  And that there was a sequel also with Maria on the cover that was an action adventure game where she was a playable character and you kept the one-on-one movement scheme but now had to navigate a world filled with a bunch of strange creatures?  What?  You mean I'm out of time?  I have to end it here... well sorry guys, guess I'll just leave you with this.
Yeah, geeky programmers from the 80s with weird hair cuts get ALL the girls! 


Saturday, 14 February 2015

GROW: QuackShot - Starring Donald Duck

Review by Clint 'ThoRn' Thornton

DeveloperSega of Japan
DirectorEmiko Yamamoto
Programmer(s)Hiroshi Momota
Masato Omori
Keiichi Yamamoto
ArtistTakashi Yuda
ComposerShigenori Kamiya
Size10 - Megabit cartridge
Release date1991

What's the first thing you think of when you hear the word 'Disney'?  For most it would probably be 'Kids Cartoons and movies' but for someone like me (and for also many of you out there) you think of some great video gaming experiences.  From the days of the NES with games like Duck Tales, Darkwing Duck and Chip 'n Dale to the mid 90's on the Mega Drive / Genesis with games like Castle of Illusion, Aladdin and Gargoyles.  These games were some of the most addictive platformers one could ask for.  Some were a walk in the park to play through and others were nothing short of a hardcore experience but no one could argue that whatever the game, most of the Disney platform games from that era where just plain fun.  Quackshot was one of the games that hit the challenge sweet spot perfectly, it wasn't a breeze but at the same time wasn't going to shorten your life by 10 years and give you grey hairs throughout the duration of the game.  So let's go get on the Steve Irwin khaki and join Donald Duck on a great adventure all over the world...

Donald is in Uncle Scrooges library and as he is perusing through one of the books, a map falls out.  This map looks like it leads to the treasure of the Ancient and Great Duck Kingdom ruler, King Garuzia.  Donald decides this is his way to fame, riches and glory so decides to go on a adventure to find this hidden treasure.  One problem though, Big Bad Pete has overheard Donalds plan and decides to follow him and steal the treasure for himself.

I think of Quackshot as a 'Spiritual Sequel' to Duck Tales on the NES.  Although the games are made by different developers I can't help but think the programmers at Sega of Japan would have enjoyed  playing Duck Tales and taken some inspiration from that game.

The player takes on the role as Donald Duck and must travel all over the world through a series of side scrolling, platforming levels.  You have Huey, Dewey & Louie to help you on your journey as they will fly the plain that drops you off and picks you up in between the locations you visit (Clearly the age for having your light plain licence is much lower in Duckberg).

At the beginning of the game you have the choice of three different stages (Duckberg, Mexico & Transylvania) to go through but you may meet a dead end if you choose the wrong level order.   But don't worry as you will be met by someone at the end to give you a clue of where you need to go to progress further.  At this point of the game, Donald will place a flag in the ground and from there can call up his nephews to come pick him up and take him to the next location he wants to visit.  As you progress through the stages you will be given new items and clues which in turn unlocks the rest of the locations you need to visit in order to find the treasure.

Now I think it's important I let you know that there is a little bit of going 'back and forth' throughout the game but I honestly don't feel it makes the game feel repetitive in any way.  If anything it makes it feel more of an adventure game as it really gets you in to that adventurous spirit trying to find clues and the next piece of the puzzle to help you progress.

This is a really fun game and the level of fun and frustration is perfect for those like me who are not the greatest platformers but at the same time still enjoy playing them.  If you're a hardcore platformer who enjoys beating Rondo of Blood and Mega Man 3 just because you can than you might find this game a little on the easy side but I still think it's worth a play through just to enjoy the story, game mechanics and visuals.

For a 10 Meg cart this game sure packs a punch in the graphics department.  I actually lost count of how many layers of parallax I saw in the Mexico stage.  This is one of those Mega Drive / Genesis games that makes you reconsider the limited color pallet of the system.  No dull and grainy backgrounds, no under drawn sprites, just a well detailed, bright and vibrant world with characters plucked straight out of the cartoons (plucked, Donald.... Get it....oh  Take notice when you play the game and when you make Donald duck to the ground and you see him pull his hat down over his head.  You can even see the expression on his face change.  It's the small things like this that give this game so much character.  I have one small gripe though, we all know Sega didn't spend much time honing in on their transparency abilities in the 16 & 32 bit days yet for some reason this game is full of attempted transparency effects which in actual fact is just dithering.  When you play the game you will see what I am talking about but that's really the only fault I can find.

Let's not forget about the audio either...  This is far from your typical sounding Genesis music, it's some of the cleanest sounding music you will hear on the console.  Each level has its own theme and suits the environment well.  It might be a little repetitive for some depending how much time you spend on each level but at least it's well composed.  I really love the Transylvania theme.  The sound effects are also nice and clear but the effect when you stun your enemy with the plunger can become a little too much after a while.

This is a must play for any platformer fan who enjoys a challenge but also likes the fun to outweigh the difficulty factor.  If you know the right order for visiting the stages you can knock this game over in about an hour but for a first timer you will be looking at closer to 2 hours but at the same time should be able to get through it in one sitting without losing all your lives.

If you want to pick this game up then now is a great time because CIB will only cost between $15 - $25 or you can get the double pack which also includes Castle of Illusion for double the fun.

Until next time...  Stay Retro!

Did you know:  Quackshot was released in Japan on the Sega Saturn under its 'Sega Ages' banner.

Friday, 6 February 2015

GROW: Pinball Fantasies

Pinball Fantasies

Released: 1992
Systems: Amiga, Amiga CD32, DOS, Game Boy, iOS, Jaguar, MeeGo, PSX, PS3, PSP, SNES

Produced by: Digital Ilusions CE
Published by: 21st Century Entertainment
Code: Andreas Axelsson
Graphics: Markus Nyström
Music and FX: Olof Gustafsson
Physics: Ulf Mandorff

Oh, the good old arcades.  The loud noises, the bustling crowds, the flashing lights, the fast moving metal balls...

WAIT!!  What are you talking about?  Arcades are places with upright video games, endless Street Fighter tournaments and gorillas stealing women atop giant construction projects!  Metal balls?

That's right kids, there used to be a time when arcades were all about the "pinballs".  (cue The Who here)  Games that merged the natural world of physics with electronic lights and flipper paddles to create great games of skill.  These games dominated coin based amusement for damn near 50 years until video games came along and stole their thunder.  But they weren't completely beaten, and in the late 80's and early 90's a new batch of pinball games arrived on the scene, merging pixelated displays, digital sounds and basic computer tech to take the thrill of keeping that damn little ball bouncing to a whole new level.  Tables like Terminator 2, The Machine: Bride of Pin-bot, Funhouse, Whirlwind, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Party Zone and Batman showed what the merging of technologies could do for the classic game. 

The boys at Digital Illusions CE were keenly aware of this and knew how to appreciate these gems, first by creating the superb Pinball Dreams and following it up a year later with Pinball Fantasies.

Originally released for the Amiga, the game featured unprecedentedly smooth scrolling and realistic ball physics.  The decision to scroll the table as opposed to showing it all at once, which had been the norm with pinball simulations up until that point, meant that the 4X3 proportions of the old RGB monitors were no longer a limitation to detail and precise ball shooting.  Of course this move did bring a few new problems, such as the impossibility of a true multiball mode, but given the complex physics of the game this probably wouldn't have been possible without a serious hit to the frame rate anyway.

The games sounds are perfectly atmospheric, combining the ball and flipper noises one would expect with digital samples of speech and sound effects to indicate when objectives have been met or specific game modes have been entered.

The big innovation over the previous entry in the series, Pinball Dreams, is the overhead display, which is no longer a digital symbol display, similar to an old digital watch, but a pixel based amber display, as one would see in an arcade of the time, or on a modern pinball table.  Graphics, scrolling text, scores, etc. keep you informed of what's going on and what your goals are.

The game  is made up of four tables: Party Land, Speed Devils, Billion Dollar Gameshow and Stones 'n Bones.

Party Land: 
Heavily influenced by the then current pinball game Funhouse, it has a theme park motif.  The course features three main ramps, with one only accessible by using a third flipper located half way up the table.  As in most of these tables there is a hidden target at the apex of the big loop, which, if measured just right can be hit without too many problems. A great table, with a log of challenge and replay value.

Speed Devils:
A car race themed table, that again features a mid table flipper, and multiple intertwined ramps.  The table rewards maintaining the speed of the proceedings, so combining different ramps will get you extra points.  The largest of the ramps requires quite a bit of speed on the ball to climb up, so strategically laid out sequences of shots will be necessary to master it.

Billion Dollar Gameshow:
My personal favorite table in the batch.   This gameshow themed table has you trying to win big money and big prizes!  At the top center is a tangle of ramps and targets that require a lot of skill to hit and successfully navigate.  The big open space in the bottom half of the table, requires a lot of long distance shots and practicing this is rewarded. 
I can still hear the anouncer talling me I just won a TV...

Stones 'n Bones:
A nightmare themed table, that Relies on long distance shots (no mid table flipper) and a almost dizzying mix of ramps and platforms.  Probably the most complex design of the bunch, mastering this table takes a lot of practice, but is again very rewarding.  Simply mashing the flipper buttons will get you nowhere, as many ramps are only accessible with the precise speed and angle on the ball.

So while the game saw many ports (mainly by other developers, mostly quite inferior, with problems with either sound effects, scrolling, physics or a combination of the above), as well as a 256 color AGA update for the Amiga 1200 and CD32, the classic Amiga version is probably still my favorite.  It isn't as complex as modern pinball simulations such as Pinball Arcade, but it brought pinball home, saved a bunch of quarters and kept the dream of the silver ball alive!

Review by Trantor