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Thursday, 12 June 2014

Unique Games: Afterlife

Before the month's main event, I wanted to give you something completely different, which might not be to everybody's liking, but is certainly related to retro gaming machines. I have been pondering on the worth of writing about new games for old machines, since most of my retro gaming friends aren't that interested in the new software, but I suppose that this could be considered a thank-you of sorts to the communities that keep on giving new software to those of us who actually do enjoy them on a regular basis. So, this one is dedicated to you, retro machine software developers!

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COMMODORE 64

1. Knight 'n' Grail (Psytronik Software, 2009)

Programmed by Mikael Tillander
Graphics by Mikael Tillander and Håkon Repstad
Sounds by Hans Axelsson

I shall start this list the first game I bought new for the C64 since Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (the Action Game). Psytronik had been releasing games semi-regularly since 1993 with their first game being a conversion of Sceptre of Baghdad (or Bagdad), originally a Spectrum game from a Finnish developer team Productive Playtime, who had their original released through Atlantis  Software in 1987. For quite a long while after that, the C64 game developing scene was as good as dead for a few years, so after the emulation thing had taken off properly, Psytronik re-emerged and gradually became the leading publisher of new commercial software for the C64.


Knight 'n' Grail was my first of many digitally purchased games for the C64, although I did buy the physical release later on as well. The reason why I bought it was, that from the playable preview already, it felt like one of those properly modern, independently developed retro-styled high-quality games, that could have well been a PC release, that I was - and still am - very much into. Knight 'n' Grail features free-roaming gameplay in a sort of Metroidvania-like environment, but more suited for the C64; a map system, different weapons and armour for different occasions, save points and even different ending sequences. The game can easily draw you in, as the playability is top notch, the music and sounds are very atmospheric, and there is just enough to see that it's a bit sad to see the game end.

Binary Zone still has some units of the physical disk release in stock, so if you have a C64 and a disk drive waiting for something new and interesting, do yourself a favour and buy this one. However, since the game is old enough, the Commodore Scene Database has a cracked release available, but if you really want to be cheap, you might as well go and search it by yourself.


2. Soulless (Psytronik Software, 2012)

Programmed by Georg Rottensteiner
Graphics by Trevor Storey and Steve Day
Sounds by Mikkel Hastrup

Ever since his first step into the world of C64 game coding with 2007's Joe Gunn, Georg "Endurion" Rottensteiner has become one of the most productive and constantly evolving programmers on the scene. With 2012's Soulless, Georg teamed up with Trevor "Smila" Storey from Ovine by Design and Steve "STE" Day for graphics and Mikkel "Encore" Hastrup for music and sounds, to create the year's most impressive commercially released C64 game.


Soulless, at least by the looks of it, is a strange mixture of games like Impossible Mission, Underwurlde and Draconus, but the gameplay focuses on exploration and solving a puzzle. The story goes like this: a powerful warrior king is overthrown by his warmongering generals for wanting to live more peacefully, and an evil wizard curses the king's body to disform into a beastly form, and his soul is stolen while at it. After a thousand years of imprisonment, the soulless king breaks free from his cell with the help of an earthquake, so your mission is to gather all the pieces of your soul and put them in order so you can become whole again.

The game is instantly playable, and is also a very atmospheric experience, and I highly recommend it. Again, it can be bought from Binary Zone on disk or tape, and RGCD even sells a deluxe cartridge edition, but if you're cheap, you can find it free for download at CSDb.


3. Quod Init Exit (RGCD & Psytronik Software, 2010)

Programming and graphics by Simone Bevilacqua
Music by Richard Bayliss

Whatever comes in, comes out. That is the linear philosophy on which Simone "Saimo" Bevilacqua's only entry in the C64 software library is based. Basically, the game is a very hectic collect'em-up type arcade game, in which you control a cute little pig around vertically placed platforms within a single screen area, whose only aim is to fill his stomach from all the passing food items, and reach the passing toilet once he is filled. If he fails to reach the toilet in time, he will disgrace himself and the game will be over.


If I recall correctly, the game was made as a bit of a joke, but turned into a relatively long process of actually creating a proper game out of it - in fact, the most recent update was released in 2013. Still, much as it was in its original preview state, the game is infinitely cute with so much hi-res graphics you will have a hard time believing it, and it also has some refreshing humour in it. Luckily, QIE is also incredibly playable, and mostly because of the fantastic background graphics that progress according to the time of day, it's very addicting as well. Richard Bayliss' cheerful soundtrack is a nice cherry on top of this very tasty rainbow cake.

If you wish to support the developers and the publishers, go to RGCD's webstore here at Bigcartel.com, and order yourself a cartridge. As with the previous two games, this one is also available for free download at CSDb and elsewhere, if you know how to look for them.


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ZX SPECTRUM

1. Albatrossity (48k/128k, Jonathan Cauldwell/Cronosoft, 2008)

Programming and graphics by Jonathan Cauldwell
Music by Matthew Westcott

The first two of my choices for the Spectrum section are based on the amount of time I have spent on the selected games since I found them, both of them being firm favourites while travelling. Jonathan Cauldwell is one of the very few, who started writing games for an 8-bit machine back in the day, and still continue on the same path, and I suppose it might say something about my personal taste or his game developing talents, that I chose two of his games for the Spectrum section.


Albatrossity is probably the most unusual variation of golf I have ever seen anywhere, as it plays more like a platformer in some ways. First of all, this one's a side-viewed golfing game that is played on platforms. Instead of having an arsenal of different clubs, this game has three different kinds of balls: a steel ball, a rubber ball and a sticky ball, all of which have their own uses, and all of which are only available for a limited number of hits. Eventually, you even get to navigate the ball around some enemies and in reverse gravity, so you can't really expect the game to be all too realistic.

Due to my tendency to only play this game (as well as the next one) on an emulator on my phone in brief segments, I haven't gotten too far in it so far - in fact, the screenshots you see above show all the extent of my experience with the game. Still, it is a very nice game to waste some time on, and one of the best examples of modern Spectrum games worth coming back to every now and then.


2. Rallybug (48k/128k, Jonathan Cauldwell/Cronosoft, 2008)

Programming and graphics by Jonathan Cauldwell
Music by Yerzmyey

Another interesting combination of concepts can be found in this rather nondescriptively titled game, Rallybug, which was originally written for the 2008 Retro Fusion event in Leamington, and released as "The Retro Fusion Game". The core of the game is a side-scrolling platformer/racer, where you must get through a number of progressively harder levels on a jumping buggy-like vehicle in a limited amount of time. The expanded bit for Rallybug makes the game a bit more tricky, which is keeping your buggy fueled up. This can be done by playing Hangman between each level, and guessing the six-letter words correctly. The thing is, you need to collect letters from each stage by jumping all around, and jumping burns the fuel more quickly than just regular driving. Also, guessing a wrong letter while playing Hangman drains a bit of your fuel. It's a very nicely balanced mixture of concepts, and the excellent playability of the core game gives Rallybug that "one more time" factor.


You can download both the original Retro Fusion version and the expanded version of this game, as well as Albatrossity, from the World of Spectrum library. The WoS archive says that Cronosoft still sells the re-releases of both of these games, so you can't get the perfect .tzx files. However, Cronosoft seems to have deleted both titles from their current products list, so I have no clue whether you actually can buy these games or not.


3. Ninjajar (128k, The Mojon Twins/Ubhres Productions, 2014)


Produced by Eightbiter
Story, concept, code and graphics by na_th_an
Loading screen and other graphics by anjuel
Music and sound effects by David Sánchez
Maps and levels by na_th_an, anjuel, jf_jara and zemman

The most recent game on the list comes from one of the most productive retrogame programming groups of all time, the Mojon Twins, singular for writing games of mostly constant quality for all the main retrogaming computers. Ninjajar is at least currently only available for the 128k Spectrum, and it also differs from the Mojon Twins norm enough to be worth singling out.


Ninjajar combines gameplay elements from Super Mario Bros., the Dizzy series and Kirby's Adventures. The plot progresses by talking to friendly characters, collecting items and taking the items to places. Sometimes, you even need to solve some puzzles in order to make progress. The Super Mario bit comes from the need to collect coins by crushing star bricks, which might contain coins, not to mention the inclusion of underwater levels; and the Kirby bit comes from the feel of controls. Most of the gameplay still owes much to the Dizzy series, but the graphics and sounds are something in their own league here. Also, it's a nice thought from the developers to have included a password system to enable the gamers to continue their game from the beginning of levels, so the gamers who insist on playing on real hardware have no need to play the game through in one sitting.

I have no idea if you can purchase a real physical version of this game, but you can download a Spanish and an English version the Mojon Twins' website. Highly recommended.


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AMSTRAD CPC

1. Dead On Time (Psytronik Software, 2010)

Programming, graphics and design by Paul "Axelay" Kooistra
Sounds by Targhan

Although the game programming scene on the Amstrad is currently better than ever, and some very impressive and playable titles have been released in the recent years, it's still a lot more difficult to find any new exclusive Amstrad games than for the other two of our main 8-bit threesome. The first two of the Amstrad list here I became aware of while browsing through Binary Zone's products.


I have no idea whether Dead On Time was named after one of the most frantically rocking Queen tracks of all time, but the song would suit the game quite well, since it's one of the fastest-paced shoot'em-ups I have ever seen on any 8-bit computer. Although the whole game takes place in one screen, the fact that you can control your ship in all 8 directions all over the screen makes you forget the one-screen setting. There are two gamemodes: a timed arcade game, where you need to collect time capsules left by aliens you've killed in order to survive longer, and a score-based game, in which you have a certain amount of time within which you need to kill as many aliens as possible and reach the highest spot on the score board. Nothing really new, but the game is superbly quick and playable, and really a surprisingly good title considering Amstrad's history with games.

The game was originally released for free, but has also been published by Psytronik Software, and can be bought from their Binary Zone webstore. Even if you're not an Amstrad fan, I would highly recommend this one to see what the machine is capable of in good hands.


2. Relentless (PD/Psytronik Software, 2013)

Programming and sound effects by Paul "Axelay" Kooistra
Graphics by Harris "Rexbeng" Kladis
Music by Hervé Monchatre

If I had to choose one word to describe this very basic, but highly energetic side-scrolling space shooter... well, I suppose I failed it already. Relentless is another Axelay creation, who seems to have specialised in space shooters, but this one is of a more traditional kind. As we all know, it doesn't necessarily mean it's bad.


While Relentless lacks in weapon upgrades and end-level boss fights, it certainly has arcade-quality playability and speed in abundance. Actually, the title is very fitting, because not only are your enemies relentless and constantly coming at you, but you need to be pretty relentless in order to beat the game. So far, I only managed to get to level 3, but since the game has automatic firing by default (the speed of which depends entirely on the chosen difficulty level), you will have less difficulty in having one more go at it. I'm not much of a shooter fan, but this got me hooked for some reason. Get yourself a real tape from Binary Zone, or download an image from the internet. Either way, you're in for a surprisingly tasty treat.


3. UWOL 2 (The Mojon Twins/Ubhres Productions, 2011)

Written by the Mojon Twins
Music by Augusto Ruiz & na_th_an

Most retrogamers who follow the scene even the least bit, will be aware of the first UWOL game, which has now been released for the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX81 and even Sega Genesis, and some third party conversions have been made for at least the unexpanded C16, SNES and Android, and an Atari 8-bit conversion is supposedly under development. Well, the Mojon Twins did create a sequel for it, but so far, it has only surfaced on the Amstrad CPC.


Why it hasn't made to any other machines yet, is a mystery. The original game has been managed to port for all the machines it has been made so far with an amazing constancy in quality. Then again, the original game is very different. In the first game, you would have to collect a number of coins from a pyramid, descending one room at a time. In the sequel, the game area is more non-linear and difficult to navigate around in that you need to go through pipes to get underground (ring any bells?), collect keys to open doors, take detours and retrace your steps in order to get to all the necessary areas in the game... you know the drill. It's a very evolved, more adventurous version of the game, but has most of the same mechanics as the original. Unfortunately, it also happens to be quite sluggish, and I think it could be made more playable on more powerful machines, if anyone bothered to convert it.

The game is still a very good and addicting one, and if you turn the emulation speed to 130-150%, you might have a better time with it. If you want to give it a go, you can download it here at the Mojon Twins' website.


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ATARI 2600

1. Duck Attack! (AtariAge, 2010)

Written by Will Nicholes

That the Atari 2600/VCS is the oldest machine that still has a surprisingly active hobbyist community, shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Because it is both the video game console that initiated the greater public's interest in home video games and partly a reason for the video game crash in 1983, it will always have a place in our cultural consciousness. Therefore, I think it's only fair that the first game for the A2600 list is quite a radical modification on the classic Atari Adventure game.


Duck Attack! has a very elaborate back story conserning a mad scientist, robots, radioactive eggs and giant mutant ducks. Your mission is to explore the mad scientist's secret lair and collect all the plutonium eggs, and the game pretty much plays like Adventure, but is so deranged that you need to see it for yourself to believe it.

The game's demo version is available for download at Will Nicholes' personal website, and if you want to support his endeavours, you can buy the game from AtariAge - as a real Atari cartridge.


2. The Wicked Father (self-published, 2011)

Written by Jamie "Juno" Hamshere

As has been the custom for the Unique Games! series, there must be some sort of questionable content to be found on some platform or another. This time, easily the most disturbing plotline in any game for this post is in Juno's The Wicked Father. Even more disturbing is that the game has a Facebook page, which is where you can download the game from, if you wish to.



The story goes like this: you, the wicked father, have locked your family in the basement of your 20 storey mansion and flooded the whole building. Life insurance + house insurance = PROFIT! Make your way to the top of the house to escape or you will die with them! Good grief. Well, needless to say, the game is very Atari 2600'esque in all its unpolishedness. However, due to the simplicity of the graphics and the (un)suitably deranged subject matter, the game has a unique sort of appeal. It certainly is a product of its age on a platform of a very different age, and I almost urge you to have a go at it.


3. Alfred Challenge (Ebivision, 1998)

Written by Eric Bacher

The final entry for Atari 2600 is already quite an old game - already 16 years old, which is only slightly more than the amount of time that it took for Atari to discontinue the 2600 since its original release. If this game doesn't make you feel old, then nothing does. But then, I think this game is supposed to make you feel old.

Apparently, Alfred Challenge is a notoriously difficult game. With only three single-screen levels, all of which have a very similar look, the game can kick you in the groin if you don't keep all your senses alert. Of course, being made for the Atari 2600, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the game looks almost as old as it can get, but the gameplay mechanics are spot on, right from the dark side of 1982. I can only congratulate Eric Bacher, this brilliant French nutjob, for creating such a perfect imitation of a stupidly difficult, yet completely playable and frustratingly addictive game that could fool anyone that it was made over well 30 years ago.

If you want to support the developing scene, you should buy the cartridge version from AtariAge store. If, however, you wish to lose your sanity for free, the game is available for download at Atarimania.


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OTHER PLATFORMS

Atari 8-bit: Yoomp! (PD, 2008)

Programming by Marcin Zukowski and Piotr Fusik
Graphics by Bartek Wasiel
Sounds by Lukasz Sychowicz

Probably the best homebrew game ever to grace the 8-bit Atari computers, Yoomp! is basically a cylindrical 3D upgrade from an old Atari game called Jump from 1986, which in turn mostly feels like Gremlin's Bounder. But what makes Yoomp! such a praiseworthy game is how the coders have been able to get the most out of the Atari hardware in all aspects - some of the tricks used in the game have rendered it seemingly impossible to port to any other 8-bit machines.


I'm not really qualified to tell you about the technical details regarding the brilliance of the game, and anyway, what can be said about Yoomp! that hasn't been said so far? Nothing, that's what. I would suggest you read all about it at RGCD (including an interview with Marcin Zukowski), or better yet, download the game from the Yoomp! website.


NES: Assimilate (Nessylum Games/Retrozone, 2012)

Programming, artwork and concept by John White
Music and sound effects by Computerization

Recently, one of the most off-the-wall gaming experiences I have had the pleasure to experience has been this alien invader simulator, or whatever you'd like to call it. Nessylum's Assimilate doesn't exactly look like much else than just another NES title, nor is it meant to, but there is something about that title, and the subject matter could be called little else than questionable.

Your mission is to fly around in an alien spaceship named Ossan, kidnap people from buildings and use your tools in order to convert them into your slaves. You have to do this while dodging deadly projectiles and enemies, and once you have assimilated 100% humans in the level, you progress to the next one. I would easily certify this game as unique, as well as exclusive. The game can be downloaded through NESsylum's website, but is also highly recommended that you purchase a physical copy of the game from Airwalk Studios, although it has to be noted that the game is only designed to play on NTSC machines.


MSX: Shouganai (PD/Paxanga Soft, 2013)

Programming and sounds by MsxKUN
Graphics by Steven Hardest

Last year's MSXdev' contest winner Shouganai by Paxanga is one of the most impressive new and original arcade titles for any machine. It combines superb playability with harsh difficulty curve and massive replay value.


You must collect diamonds through 24 stages (I only have gotten to the fourth stage so far) in a limited time by controlling some sort of robotic device with a snake-like grappling hook thing around all the possible edges of each screen. Of course, your mission is made more difficult by some nasty enemies and lethal mines, but to bring some balance to the game, you are given length and speed upgrades to the grappling tail, as well as time bonuses. Apparently, the game also has warps to help you make quicker progress, but I haven't come across one so far.

Shouganai truly is an astonishing late 80's style action-puzzler, very much worth checking out. One can only wonder why this hasn't been produced as a real cartridge. The game can be downloaded from Paxanga's website.

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There are so many great games coming out every year for so many of our favourite retro machines, that it's actually pretty hard to keep up with all of them. Some of the new releases are ports of some indie and flash games on the PC (i.e. Ridiculous Reality, l'Abbaye des Morts, Super Bread Box), and some of them are new conversions of old games (i.e. Fortress of Narzod, Speccy Bros, Maziacs), but every now and then, something pops up that is exclusive to one particular machine, and sometimes even manage to bring something completely new to the table. I think most of us can agree that we retrogamers have to consider ourselves lucky, because we have something that most of the young gamers of the most recent hardware generations can only dream about: longevity.

Thanks for reading again! If you want to see more new exclusive and/or unique games mentioned in the future, drop me a comment, and if something isn't quite right, corrections are welcome.

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