Monday, 6 January 2014

Unique Games! - Part 1

Now that the first New Year for the blog has passed, I thought it might be a good idea to look at a few of some unique games on each of our favourite machines. Not necessarily unique as in being of a completely one of a kind experience, but more that it only originally existed on one of the machines. So, if you have one or more of these gaming devices, you should probably try to get a hold of one or more of the games listed here, if only for the sake of being unique. As the blog entry title says, this is going to be another series of interesting reading for all you retrogamers out there.
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SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM

1. A Day In The Life (48k, Micromega, 1985)

Let's start with the black beast of Britain, the ZX Spectrum from Sinclair Research Ltd. Although perhaps not quite the most interesting or the most impressive entry of the lot, I would like to begin with this game that had a good deal of responsibility in relighting my interest in researching old games quite a few years ago. Starring Sir Clive himself, an aptly titled A Day In The Life is a simple arcade game that will put you in the boots of Clive Sinclair, your mission being to get him out of his house, get to the train, visit several questionable places and finally get to Buckingham Palace to get him knighted. The amount of scenes and the logical order of proceedings is delightful, and having only seemingly simple directional controls to go with the strangely built sections and diverse enemy movement has the ability to make you scratch your head a few times.


2. Wheelie (48k, Microsphere, 1983)

Another early title for the rubberkeyed Spectrum, Wheelie is what you would call quite possibly the earliest ancestor for games like the Trials series, Action SuperCross/ElastoMania, and further back in time, the two Kikstart games and Super Scramble Simulator. Side-scrolling motorbiking games aren't particularly common, and Wheelie was probably the only such game that stuck to my mind from my childhood as being as strange and unique as it was addictive. To my knowledge, no earlier example of a game of this genre exists, and this is one of the better reasons to get properly introduced to the Spectrum.

3. Deathchase (16k, Micromega, 1983)

Often hailed as the best game for any Spectrum machine, this first-person biking-and-gunning game was written originally for the 16k Spectrum by Mervyn Estcourt. The 3D'esque game engine was incredibly advanced at the time, and although the graphics have a rather simplistic look, the movement speed is indeed very impressive still. The premise is simple: you chase two enemy bikes and try to shoot them while dodging trees and other obstacles. You can shoot tanks and helicopters for bonus points. What makes the gameplay unique is the way your projectiles act according to your movement. Sure, Deathchase has had some remakes for modern machines as well as for 8-bit and 16-bit computers in the recent years, but the 16k Spectrum version was the original and the only official version by Mervyn Estcourt.


UPDATE! - 6th of September, 2014:
Although I originally mentioned that there are remakes available for many machines, due to the other updates made recently, I decided now to write a bit of a list of all the currently known conversion, just to make things clearer.

Screenshots from unofficial/re-authored Deathchase conversions.
Top row, left to right: Hell Racer (C64), Deathchase (Amstrad), Deathchase XE (Atari)
Bottom left: Deathchase (Dragon 32), Zagan Warrior (C16)

First off, there's the Amstrad conversion by Richard Wilson (The Executioner), released in 2008, which was made from his disassembly of the z80 code. It was released into public domain, and can be found at the CPC Softs website, for example. Next, I found a Dragon 32/64 version from the World of Dragon wikipage. I'm not sure if it's released, but the conversion was written in 2009 by James McKay, basing it on the Amstrad conversion. Apparently, it is compatible with Tandy Color Computers as well. Then there's this loosely-based-on-the-original "conversion" called Hell Racer, written by Jörg Heyltjes in 2012 for the Commodore 64, which curiously implies a closer basis on John Airey's Zagan Warrior on the C16 from 1986. And finally (at least for now), the Atari conversion, appropriately titled Deathchase XE, released in 2013 in the ABBUC Software Contest, written by Krzysztof Dudek, Adam Wachowski, Jaroslaw Wyszynski and Michal Radecki.

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COMMODORE 64

1. Bozo's Night Out (Taskset, 1984)

Counterbalancing Spectrum's A Day In The Life, our first entry for the Commodore 64 takes a more straightforward view at questionable actions. Bozo's Night Out places you in the shoes of a drunkard, whose only purpose in life is to get as drunk as possible, and get home every night through the increasingly dangerous streets, full of his own hallucinations and other very real dangers. Taskset were masters at creating games with unconventional ideas, and this one is definitely one of their most celebrated titles for whatever reason. It's devilishly addictive, and being a game from 1984, it's also surprisingly well-aged. Definitely worth a go or two, but not necessarily worth buying a C64 for, even if it was only ever released on the said platform.

2. Space Taxi (Muse Software, 1984)

This, however, would be one of those reasons. Space Taxi was developed and released by an American development company called Muse Software, mostly releasing their games on disk, and Space Taxi in particular was the only one in their catalogue solely created for the C64. As the title suggests, your mission is to control a flying taxi cab, picking up customers and taking them to their requested destination platform. Playing with gravity and increasingly difficult terrain and strangely behaving obstacles through 24 levels, this one really never gets old. Although the graphics aren't all that much to speak of, the speech samples and spacey sound effects enhance the brilliant gaming experience nicely.



UPDATE! 25th of October, 2014:
Many months after I had done this entry, I found about a conversion of Space Taxi for the Commodore 16 computer, which renders this particular entry on the list a bit useless. Fortunately, the game is different enough, and very likely an unauthorized conversion, so the original still quite possibly remains the only official version available. Read more about the C16 conversion on my September 2014 Updates entry.

3. Paradroid (Hewson Consultants, 1985)

Because the Spectrum's third entry has been unofficially converted for several machines, it's only suitable that the C64's third entry should be one that wasn't properly converted for any computer. Instead, Andrew Braybrook's Paradroid was re-written for the Spectrum by Steve Turner in isometric 3D environment, and was re-titled as Quazatron. Also, Quazatron is based in a city rather than a spacecraft, so it feels more like a sequel than a conversion of the original. Anyhow, Paradroid is a top-down 2D scrolling puzzle-shooter, that puts you - the influence device 001 - aboard a spaceship filled with enemy droids that you are supposed to either take over or destroy through a duel minigame based on circuit diagrams and logic gates. Whether or not these two games should be dealt with in a proper comparison post is another matter entirely, but the original Paradroid can only be found on the C64, and is considered to be one of the most important games on the platform. Two different official editions of Paradroid were also released for the C64: Competition Edition in 1986 and Heavy Metal Paradroid in 1989, both being considerably quicker than the original, and the latter only having a slight graphical overhaul, but while both of them should be preferred to the original version, an altogether much better Redux version has been worked on since 2006, and is available to download at this website.


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ATARI 8-BIT COMPUTERS

1. Caverns of Mars (APX, 1981)

A strangely personal entry for the whole blog, Caverns of Mars was one of my earliest gaming experiences after Atari 2600's version of Pac-Man and Nintendo's Game & Watch Donkey Kong Jr. When I found out a little less than 25 years later when I first played this game since my childhood, that it was only ever released on the Atari 8-bit machines, I was flabbergasted. Although it's not much more than a rotated version of Scramble, it has a very unique overall feel to it. What makes this game even more unique, is its history. Greg Christensen, still a high school student in 1981, wrote the game in six months, sent it to APX - the Atari Program Exchange, eventually winning the 1981 APX game contest and receiving considerable sum of royalties. Atari licensed the game for their main catalogue in 1982, being the first and one of the very few to get such an honour. All that aside, the only game I've encountered that has greater similarities to Caverns of Mars is Scott Elder's Journey from 1986 on the C64, and that one is hardly worth mentioning.

2. Captain Sticky's Gold (English Software, 1983)

One of only two known games featuring the elusive Captain Sticky, this is supposedly the first of a series that was supposed to feature at least four games, the second and final entry being strangely #4 in the series - the better known Cosmic Tunnels, which was also converted for other platforms. Captain Sticky's Gold is another straightforward arcade action game, where you play as a diver, picking up gold from the bottom of the fish-infested sea, but you need to keep an eye on your oxygen level and get up on your boat after every gold pick-up. Every level changes the fishes to something else, and the other dangers to something more dangerous. Not very ground-breaking, but a very uniquely Atari sort of experience altogether.


3. Schreckenstein (Ariolasoft, 1985)

Our third Atari 800 entry comes surprisingly from Germany, and I would have no idea of this game, had it not been in the Top 25 list by visitor ratings. It seems like one of the first games to be created mainly for being a one-on-one experience in the form of a platform puzzler of all genres. I still haven't completely figured out what to do in the game, since I couldn't find a manual for it and I have only played it once, but it felt compelling enough to feature it here.

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MSX

1. F-1 Spirit: The Way to Formula-1 (MSX1, Konami, 1987)

One of the most overlooked top-down racing games of all time, most likely due to it only having been released originally on the MSX computers, F-1 Spirit definitely deserves a mention in any retrogaming community. This is one of the rare examples of 1980's racing games that actually feature some very simulation-like elements in that you have to decide upon different car types and their settings on each of three different racing environments, if not indeed the only one of its kind. In the middle of lengthier races, you have to make pitstops, much like in Epyx's Pitstop games, but here, the procedure isn't quite as detailed. However, it is much quicker and it is so for a reason - you really need to be as quick as possible in this game, and you need every bit of experience you can get to win the game. A very rare example of excellent and challenging 8-bit top-down racing, only slightly troubled by the MSX's famous scrolling inabilities. But it is certainly a worthy reason to own an MSX machine, if you happen to be interested in collecting old gaming hardware.

2. Metal Gear II: Solid Snake (MSX2, Konami, 1990)

Unfortunately, I have never really played this game beyond the first screen, simply because I haven't played the officially translated version of it, and until I hunted down a fan translation of it for this blog entry, I had only seen the Japanese original on a real MSX2 a long time ago. I know it to be a brilliant game, and a completely different experience from the unofficial sequel on the NES, completely disowned by the original creator Hideo Kojima. If anyone's interested enough in this particular title, though, you can find it fairly easily these days featured as a fully translated bonus in PlayStation 2's Metal Gear 3: Subsistence, but a fan translation of the MSX2 original on an emulator will do nicely as well. If for some reason you have no idea what this series is all about, the first two Metal Gear games are top-down stealth-action-adventure games, and have considerable significance in the history of gaming. In fact, I think I might have a go at writing a comparison of the first Metal Gear game at some point this year...


3. Knightmare / Majou Densetsu (MSX1, Konami, 1986)

Granted, Knightmare is far from being a unique or even a relatively interesting game, when it comes to the genre. The playability of the game is stupendously slow and it really is nowhere near as replayable as most of the other shooters on the MSX. However, it is only available on MSX, and very much commendable for being the first of three Majou Densetsu games, the second of which is nowadays more famous for being the main influence behind the indie hit game La-Mulana.


CORRECTION 6.1.2014, 17:52 -- I was pointed out at World of Spectrum by ivanzx that Knightmare was unofficially converted and released for the Spectrum in 2012. Being as it is unofficial, I don't think it counts, because only less than two years ago, the MSX version would have indeed been the only version of the game available. Considering it's still the only official release, it still somehow remains a unique release - only not the only one available. Well, more MSX entries coming up in later parts of the series, so stay tuned.

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COMMODORE AMIGA

1. Twintris (0.5MB, OCS/ECS, Digital Marketing, 1990)

Probably my favourite version of Tetris was made by a man called Svein Berge in 1990, with help in the audio department from Tor Bernhard Gausen. Until I started writing this entry for my blog, I had always thought this game was public domain, but according to Hall Of Light, the Amiga Games Database, it was actually a commercial release from a German publisher company called Digital Marketing. The thing that makes Twintris such a unique game in my mind is not only the very smooth and responsive controls, but the game has this brilliant earthquake effect that comes in different magnitudes depending on how many rows you can destroy. In the later levels, the game will start with a huge bang due to a huge object dropping and taking the whole bottom half of your play area, and I remember playing with the level reset button in this scene and crashing the Amiga because the crash effect was just too much for it to handle. Oh joy.

2. Skidmarks (1MB, OCS/ECS/AGA, Acid Software, 1993)

As you can see from the screenshots, this game does not have anything to do with sloppy toilet manners. Nope - it's main attraction was a graphical detail, literally the skidmarks left by the cars racing on several types of surfaces. But that aside, the game plays superbly fast, and the choice of your vehicle makes a huge difference in what kinds of speeds you will be driving at, and what kind of handling is to be expected. Depending on the amount of RAM on your Amiga and the graphic mode available, you could have up to four different types of cars on the field at once in four different colours. The original Skidmarks was only ever released on the Amiga, although a half-hearted conversion was made for the C64 by Samar Productions in 1996 (as Skidmarx!), and the sequel, Super Skidmarks was also released for the Sega Genesis/MegaDrive by Codemasters, but I never felt it was anywhere near as good as the original, even on the Amiga.
3. Benefactor (1MB, OCS/ECS/CD32, Psygnosis, 1994)

Digital Illusions (currently known as DICE), probably the most successful Swedish game-developing company, made their first big profits with their three Pinball simulation games. However, between Pinball Fantasies and Pinball Illusions, they made a unique platform-puzzler called Benefactor, only to be released on the Amiga and Amiga CD32. In this game, you control an ex-military man called Ben E. Factor (no kidding!), and his mission is to save a group of Merry Men from 60 levels from different kinds of platforming environments, but the game plays more like a puzzle-solving adventure than a regular platformer. I never played this game when Amiga was the current thing back in the 90's, but thanks to emulation, I found this unique piece of Amiga gaming history a few years ago. Although the game has a slightly uncomfortable learning process due to the more-than-adequately realistic style of animation and movement, I do recommend it very highly.

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NINTENDO ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM (FAMICOM)

1. Solar Jetman: Hunt for the Golden Warpship (Rare, 1990)

For a gaming console that conquered most of the world in the late 1980's with the Super Mario Bros. series, it's surprisingly difficult to find some interesting and different kinds of games that would be expected. Unique, though, is quite easy, since Nintendo owned a monopoly on a vast percentage of the games in their catalogue. This game here, though, was a part of the famous Spectrum-originated Jetman series with Jet Pac and Lunar Jetman being the previous entries. For some reason, Solar Jetman wasn't developed by Tim and Chris Stamper, but by Zippo Games, and instead of featuring Jetman himself as the playable character, they went for a bigger scale thing and made Jetman fly a rotational-based space pod in the vein of Gravitar and Thrust. So, while the game isn't unique in playability and style, it's the only one in the Jetman series to be released only on the 8-bit Nintendo. A finished but officially unreleased port for the C64 was discovered some years ago, and has been made available for download.

2. Crystalis (SNK, 1990)

SNK's cult classic Crystalis is somewhat of an oddity. It's an action-adventure/RPG like the Legend of Zelda, but it plays more like the Super Nintendo Zelda game, and still it's nowhere near as famous or iconic. Of course, the original Zelda was released in 1986, so it's a whopping four years older than Crystalis, but that shouldn't be an important factor in decided which game is better. The main difference in gameplay is that Crystalis is more based on action instead of puzzles, so that probably has something to do with it. However, there's a much clearer plot to be played through in Crystalis than in the original Legend of Zelda, making the game feel more like A Link To The Past on SNES - so technically, this is more of a link between the original Legend of Zelda and A Link To The Past than Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Also having fairly good graphics and a brilliant soundtrack, this is easily in the top 3 RPG's you can get for the NES. Too bad it wasn't released in Europe.

3. Skate or Die 2: The Search for Double Trouble (Electronic Arts, 1990)

Another oddity is this unexpected sequel of sorts for a multi-event sports game, only released for the 8-bit Nintendo. What is less unexpected is that being a machine best known for its platforming games catalogue, this sports themed game has been turned into a platforming adventure, where you need to use some skating tricks to make progress. I cannot say with a good conscience that this game is an enjoyable one, but it sure is unique. To make up for the awkward playability, there's a very enjoyable soundtrack by none other than Rob Hubbard, so it should be a point of interest for Commodore users.



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SEGA CONSOLES

1. Haunting Starring Polterguy (MD/Genesis, Electronic Arts, 1993)

I was never much of a Sega player, but thanks to my girlfriend, I was introduced to this unique piece of gaming. Your mission in this strange game is to play as the Polterguy, and wreak havoc with your ghostly abilities on some families that are clearly not fit to be living with a spiritual power residing along with them in the house. Performing spooking tricks and getting in trouble with dogs etc. will drain your ectoplasm, which works as your energy. When the ecto bar is dried up, you will be transported to the underworld to try and collect some more ecto to get back to work. While Haunting was originally only released on the 16-bit Sega console, it was 13 years later converted for PlayStation Portable, but I consider it a retro re-release instead of a proper conversion.

2. Comix Zone (MD/Genesis, Sega, 1995)

Okay, this is not even nearly the first game to be played in a comic book based environment, but it might be the only one to actually have the action sequences kept within the pages on screen. Basically, Comix Zone is a brawler within a comic book with a nice plot twist - the comic book artist himself has been made the protagonist, and he has to fight through his own comic's pages and become a superhero. Although originally only made for the Sega Genesis/Megadrive, Comix Zone was ported to the Game Boy Advance in 2002, but due to the GBA's screen size, the comic frames effect was lessened so it felt like a more traditional platform action game

3. James Bond 007: The Duel (SMS/GG/MD/Genesis, Domark, 1993)

So, what is so unique about this game that made me not only include it on the list, but also made me not to limit the Sega list just for the Megadrive, or Genesis, as the Americans call it? Well, an obvious reason would be that this particular James Bond game was only released on the Sega consoles - Master System, Game Gear and Genesis/Megadrive. Second reason, and vastly more important one would be that it was the first James Bond game not to be directly based on a movie or a novel, although it does feature some old familiar Bond villains - and before you say: "Wasn't there The Stealth Affair before..." - NO. Delphine Software developed Operation Stealth for the European market, featuring John Glames as the protagonist, and some brainiac thought it would be a good idea to get a licence to use the double-o-agent as a cashing device for the North American market. Anyway, James Bond 007: The Duel features Timothy Dalton in his last outing four years after he dropped out of the Bond movies. The game plays much like Rolling Thunder, but is a bit more difficult. Other than being another - and final - mediocre Bond game in Domark's list of less than brilliant Bond games, it's a collector's item, and a unique one in enough of way to consider owning one. But don't buy a Sega just to get this game, unless you really are a Bond fanatic.

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That's it for now, hope you enjoyed it! More games for the more familiar machines, and some games for machines not yet mentioned coming up in future parts of this series, but next time, back to the regular comparisons! If you can think of some more good (or at least worth mentioning) unique games for the above machines or perhaps even some other machines, drop me a comment!

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