Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Express Raider (Data East, 1986)

Developed by Data East Corporation and released for the arcades in 1986. Released in North America as "Western Express".

Commodore 64 conversion by Damned House: Programming by Zoltán Kanizsai, Zoltán Czigler, István Rátkai & Ferenc Frank; Graphics by Melinda Legradi; Music and sound effects by Istvan Toth Gy. Published by Data East (US) and U.S. Gold (EU) in 1987.

Amstrad CPC conversion by Paul Zsadanyi, Gergely Gyurkovits, Peter Kovacs and Laszlo Kovacs
for Homega Software. Published by U.S. Gold (EU) in 1987.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum conversion by Paul Zsadanyi, Paul Zsadanyi Jr., Attila Kertesz and Zoltán Farkas
for Homega Software. Published by U.S. Gold (EU) in 1987.



Some time ago, Reset64 magazine had a train theme on their 13th issue, which inspired me to dig out one of my old C64 favourites, an arcade original called Express Raider, which I had on a compilation called Arcade Alley, a relatively rare compilation with only games by Data East. Ported only to the three major 8-bit home computers, Express Raider seems to be somewhat of a cult classic that's rarely spoken of, but mostly with very rose-tinted glasses stitched over the old gamers' eyes.

Even though the original arcade version has been lately released for Nintendo Switch, Playstation 3, Vita and PSP, as well as Antstream, the arcade version is so little known, that I couldn't find any ratings for it in the usual online databases. As for the three 8-bits, the score at Lemon64 is currently at 7.1 from 64 votes, and the two Amstrad sites have a 6 out of 10 from CPC Game Reviews and a 15.57 out of  20.00 at CPC-Power. As we're transitioning from the archived World of Spectrum to the more modern Spectrum Computing website for ratings, we still have both scores: 6.5 from 4 votes at SC and 6.45 from 31 votes at the old WOS.



Old West-themed games used to be a lot more in fashion in the 1980's, particularly in the mid-80's, than they ever were since. Of course, we've had games like Desperados, Outlaws and Red Dead Redemption since Windows became a proper gaming platform, but in the 80's, western-themed games used to grow on trees. You got classics like Gun Fight, Gun.Smoke, Iron Horse, West Bank, High Noon, the Oregon Trail, Wild Gunman and Law of the West, and then lesser known cult hits like the Lost Dutchman Mine, A Fistful of Bucks, the Wild Bunch, Kane, Western Games, Gunfright and Train Robbers, and I've only just scratched the surface. Express Raider falls somewhere between these two groups.

Alternative cover art.
For an arcade game that takes place in Old West, Express Raider is a relatively obscure item, since you get to do two types of action. The first part is about fighting your way through a running train by punching and kicking your enemies in a single-screen based environment, while the second part puts you on top of a horse, running alongside a train, to shoot out your enemies shooting at you from within the train carriages. Because of its age and aspiration for a bigger adventure than you would expect, the game doesn't really lean on realism, but there's still a good amount of gameplay quirks to get your head around.

Old West games in general have a tendency to vary greatly in the specific style of gameplay, although they all tend to have one of two different goals, or both: kill all the baddies, and/or get a treasure. Express Raider doesn't disappoint in either regard, since it has enough of variety to be considered a good journey, as well as both possible goals. Although it's not the most rewarding of games, it's a hefty amount of fun in skill-based action.

Still, like most classic arcade games, Express Raider plays an endless loop of basically two different levels, although with advancements in difficulty. The arcade version is, naturally, more advanced in presentation than the 8-bit conversions, but the basic idea remains the same in all versions. All things considered, it's a fairly good arcade title for the 8-bits, and a worthy hidden gem to get to know in its original form. Hardly essential knowledge for retrogaming enthusiasts, though.



Obviously, the tape loading times are practically necessary for a game comparison such as this, even though the original version wasn't exactly delivered on cassette. These things still appear to be somewhat important as a point of comparison for the 8-bitters, so here we go.

AMSTRAD CPC: 5 min 16 sec
COMMODORE 64: 4 min 28 sec
ZX SPECTRUM org: 4 min 25 sec
ZX SPECTRUM Erbe: 3 min 58 sec

For a change, the SPECTRUM version wins already in its original release, but the Spanish Erbe release takes off a whopping half a minute off from the original. The AMSTRAD version gives no surprises here.

Loading screens, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

The set of loading screens this time offer a wildly varied gallery, considering it's the usual threesome we're dealing with here. The C64 version shows a variation of what you will come to know later as the title screen, only here you get the credits instead of options. The AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions go for unique screens for each version, with only the AMSTRAD version even attempting to get a likeness of the original Data East cover art, but neither going for the original title logo. Although the AMSTRAD version shows the most energetic and mood-setting loading screen, the SPECTRUM version's loading scheme draws the screen in a very out-of-the-norm manner, which is more entertaining to look at for the duration. So, for a change, the C64 version has the least interesting loader, even if it's not the slowest.



If we were to be unforgivingly specific about how the 8-bit conversions compare to the original ARCADE version, there would be plenty to complain about. The most blatant differences between the original and the home conversions are the number of game modes, and the number of fire buttons in your controller. The arcade controller has two fire buttons, one for punching and one for kicking. Since the 8-bit Atari-standard joystick has only one fire button (by default), the punches and kicks are programmed to appear with some visual logic. The game modes for the 8-bits are Practice, Normal and Expert, while the ARCADE version has dip switches for Easy, Normal, Hard and Very Hard. I've compared the Normal mode from the 8-bits against the original's Easy and Normal modes, and judging by the speed and tenacity of your enemies, the Easy mode in the ARCADE version is the closest approximation to the 8-bits versions' Normal mode, so I'll be basing my comparison on this difficulty mode combination.

It has to be pointed out, that choosing the Normal mode in the ARCADE version would not only make the regular enemies more aggressive, but you would also get early appearances of enemies that would not appear in Easy mode until much later into the game, such as indians shooting arrows at you from passing trees, as well as eagles flying at you.

The most dramatic specific difference you can find in any of the versions is in the AMSTRAD version, which doesn't have any continues after a Game Over, which only applies to the original's most difficult setting. The other two home conversions seem to have endless continues. The SPECTRUM version just as perversely doesn't give you the option NOT to continue from the spot where your game ended - the game simply picks up straight after the Game Over screen from where you left off. The C64 version at least has a high score table, which features a timer during which you must press the fire button in order to continue where you left off.

Gameplay-wise, though, there aren't too many drastic differences between the 8-bits. When compared to the ARCADE version, there are some things worth mentioning. Firstly, none of the 8-bit versions get you going left instead of the usual right, while the original switches the direction after every other section. Although this only makes you mirror your controls, it's an element in the original version which gives the game just a little bit more longevity through variety.

Secondly, the C64 version is the only one of the three home ports that use scrolling instead of the more Z80-friendly flip-screen method. While this doesn't really affect the gameplay for the most part, the first part of the game, which takes place on ground-level, is played against a timer on the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD instead of a taking off train. The AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions share a bug, that allows you collecting score for a theoretical eternity, which makes the timer stay on the same number for as long as you manage to hit the coyotes by punching them while in crawling position.

There is another element that seems to be either missing or notably less prominent in the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions, and that is the occasional signposts, which you need to dodge. I have never seen them appear in either version, but I've heard varying accounts of this, so it's difficult to say one way or another. For now, I shall have to trust my own experience in this, but let me know if you have any more certain information about this.

The number of differences to the original version grows as you make progress. In the third section, which is the second run on top of a train, the Easy mode in the ARCADE version already features a train car, in which enemies grab your feet from windows below. From what I've gathered, the C64 and AMSTRAD versions don't have these grabbing hands until a bit later on in the game, and the  SPECTRUM version doesn't have them at all. If you have differing information on this as well, do throw a comment under the article, and I will fix it as soon as I can manage.

All three home conversions have the section with breakable boxes, which need breaking in order to proceed fighting with a strong baddie on the same roof, but there are notable differences. From the home conversions, this section is the easiest to handle in the AMSTRAD version, if not the most similar to the original. The C64 version is the closest to the original, while the SPECTRUM version has the most problems with getting hits delivered, as well as with collision detection.

One of the most differentiating elements in the game is the enemies that shoot at you while you run through the train's roof-tops. In the C64 and SPECTRUM versions, none of the shooting enemies move a single pixel, and sometimes it's difficult to settle yourself next to them in such a manner that makes your punches/kicks actually reach the enemies; however, the projectiles shot by the enemies are the easiest to dodge on the C64. In the SPECTRUM version, at least, the enemies can shoot at you on two different altitudes. In the AMSTRAD version, the enemies can actually move a bit, if not exactly similarly to how they do in the original ARCADE version, but the problem is, that they also shoot increasingly faster as you get closer to them, and the bullets can unfairly hit you as you get into the enemies' immediate proximity, despite your clearly lower altitude to the bullets' flight path.

Every other level gets you horseback riding on the side of the train, and you basically just need to shoot a number of enemies shooting at you from within or on top of the train car, until you reach the locomotive. The only real differences I made any notice to are the speed of movement of your horse, and how the aiming and shooting is handled.

All the 8-bit conversions have the shooting instantaneous, but only the SPECTRUM version has a crosshair to get a clear aim with. However, the Spectrum version aims on a character block basis, so you can imagine the horse movement is a bit faster than in the other versions, and so your aiming also has to be more specific. In the ARCADE original, your bullets actually fly to their target, causing a natural delay in action and potential consequence, so your enemies have an actual (but slim) chance of disappearing before your bullets reach their target.

Based on my current observations, I have come to the conclusion that from the two Z80-based conversions, the SPECTRUM one is the more playable, as it has less oddities in the balance of difficulty, even if it is missing some of the elements from further levels. The AMSTRAD version is just too unbalanced on the whole, and unfair at certain points. The C64 version is, quite simply, the closest to the original from the 8-bits.




Doing artwork for Old West-themed games should be fairly easy on principle, since they all take place in similar environments: lots of sand, some wood-based buildings with a certain kind of styling to them, horses, trains, scarce vegetation, you know the drill. If you do get out of the desert, you will still only get some more nature, since the town segments always take place in small towns, usually on one specific bit of street. But you still have to have the title screens and other necessary things that come with the territory of a game.

Arcade title sequence (attract mode).

In the original ARCADE version, you get a clear title screen with a separated picture of the locomotive you're supposed to reach at the end of each level, accompanied by a title logo above it, as well as the inevitable copyright at the bottom. The rest of the attract mode sequence contain brief gameplay  footage and the current high scores list. As you insert a coin, the screen will stay at "Press Start button" until you press it.

Commodore 64 title screen and high score table.

The C64 title screen doesn't have much to recommend itself, only the title logo is of any real interest. You get the options straight away in the title screen, since all the credits were shown in the loading picture already, which is similar enough to the title screen to basically give you nothing new in terms of actual graphics, if you loaded the game from original media. In fact, you get even less of graphical content here, since you don't even have the Data East logo here. The high scores table is only shown after your Game is Over.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum options and title screen.

An odd case of a joystick options screen in the middle of loading (prior to the actual loading screen) gives the SPECTRUM version a unique touch, but it doesn't help the fact that there are absolutely no graphics to show for a proper title screen - the porting team probably figured the loading screen should be enough. After the game has loaded, you get the gameplay options as expected, but I'm a bit surprised they couldn't get the controller options included in the main options screen, where they usually are. Anyway, no actual graphics here.

Amstrad CPC title sequence and options.

For the AMSTRAD version, the Homega team decided to take the first screen of the game to act as the background for all the titles, credits and options. Only the high score table is shown as its own entity with no background graphics. Nice, but it would have been nicer if they had used different screens for the credits and options screens. Still, better than the other 8-bits.

Level descriptions, left to right: Arcade, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC.

Between each level, you get a message screen giving you some general hints to what you're supposed to be doing. The material point of this message is informing you of any new things thrown at you, but the way the messages are sometimes written, are not exactly the most informative. Nor do they offer any actual graphics in each version, but I just thought to show this here before entering the actual level graphics.

Screenshots from the Arcade version of level 1.

As you know, the game can be practically split into two parts. The first part deals with your having to first fight a banker, as well as a bunch of coyotes, before you are taken to run through the rooftops of the train carriages, fighting one enemy at a time. While you will most certainly focus on defeating your enemies, the backdrops vary quite a lot, which make this one of the most visually entertaining Old West arcade games up to that point in arcade gaming history.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version of level 1.

The C64 version starts off well enough, with the train crawling past you while you fight the banker and the coyotes. As you leave the town, though, the rest of the first level is nothing but empty prairie, with a single group of mountains in the distance looping through the entire level. All the enemies have a different look, though, and the train cars each look different. Not too shabby.

Screenshots from the Sinclair ZX Spectrum version of level 1.

For the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions, they actually separated the first level in two parts, but I will still treat them as one, because that's how it was originally. The backgrounds in the SPECTRUM version have a bit more variety than the C64 version, with two different loops for the on-train screens and the obvious town screen in the beginning, but you don't get full scrolling - the backgrounds switch seemingly randomly along with the screen flips to every new train car, but there only seems to be two backgrounds - one blue mountain range and one red. This goes for the rest of the game for these sections. The animations are a bit choppier than on the C64, but not to any disturbing amount. Due to the monochrome graphics, your enemies look a bit too similar to each other, apart from the ones that shoot at you, but due to the attribute clash problems, colouring the enemies must not have been a plausible option.

Screenshots from the Amstrad CPC version of level 1.

Although the AMSTRAD version shares the flip-screen progression method, the game feels much more lively due to the amount of variety in background graphics. Sure, the basic colour basis is green and yellow, but there's some differences in details between all the backgrounds, such as snow on mountain tops and a river running through the prairie. The game does have a bit of a Lego look all over due to the chosen graphic mode, but in this case, it's preferable to the SPECTRUM mode, as it allows for more variety in the enemy colourings and background details. The animation is, again, a bit choppy and underdeveloped, but they do their job well enough.

Screenshots from the Arcade version of level 2.

The horse-riding levels don't contain nearly as much background graphics, but then the top half of the screen is taken by the train, so you barely ever get to see properly what's going on behind the train. Therefore, any visible variety in the terrain graphics happens between your horse and the train, and as you can see here, there are some rocks, bushes and skeletons around, which you will probably never put much of focus on, but it's nice to have it all there.

As for the variety of enemies in these levels, there's not much, to be honest. Just a good amount of different-looking Old West type characters looking out the windows, holding and shooting their rifles or throwing bottles or money bags at you. Perhaps a good pointer towards the attention to detail in the original version is the way your horse always retracts to the left edge of the screen when you're moving on to the next carriage.

Screenshots from the Commodore 64 version of level 2.

For the C64 version, the amount of variety in background graphics happens strictly in the immediate vicinity of the railroad tracks, which is only logical, since you won't be looking at the lower part of the screen anyway. Again, the background behind the train only features a single loop of a green forest area below the green mountain range, but the locomotive is also green here. Your horse-and-rider combo is very Lego-styled, but again, as the focus is on the train cars, you can't really be bothered about the lack of pixels here. Everything on the train looks as good as in the first section, but it's all less animated. Not that the enemies are all that animated in the ARCADE version, but they're still notably less so on the C64.

Screenshots from the Sinclair ZX Spectrum version of level 2.

The SPECTRUM version's horse levels are even less varied and have less content in background detail than the C64 version, but the train cars look a bit more colourful. The only real advantage is, that the horse-and-rider combo looks much more detailed here.

Screenshots from the Amstrad CPC version of level 2.

Surprisingly, the AMSTRAD version continues with the same background graphics pattern as exhibited in the first level, so you get a lot of variety in that regard in this level as well. The trackside graphics aren't nearly as interesting, though, but the horse-and-rider combo looks like the optimal choice between the SPECTRUM and C64 options. You also get colourful enemies and all the possible cash bag droppers, which you don't get in either the SPECTRUM or the C64 versions.

Screenshots from further levels and the "enter name" screen from the Arcade version.

On the second train, the direction switches, and you have to start looking out for tunnels, boxes and people grabbing your feet from windows. Also, birds dropping cash bags start appearing. Obviously, there are even more background graphics to marvel at here, and just the fact that the scrolling direction is different makes a unique change into the game from all its versions.

The Game Over screen is nothing to talk about, as you have seen the text screen style from the level description before, but when you get to type in your initials for the high score table, you get a huge slab of wood, upon which your letters come to appear in a classic Western font.

Screenshots from further levels and the "enter name" screen from the Commodore 64 version.

The C64 version starts showing much more variety in backgrounds as well as gameplay elements (tunnels, boxes, etc.) once you get to the second level taking place on top of the train. This really saves much of the game's longevity potential; enemy variety isn't the only important factor in this regard. One might wish for a more natural change of scenery, though, instead of clear cuts from prairie to green lands, and vice versa. The further horse-riding sections also feature different backdrops, but basically there's not much new to see from that point on.

You can guess how the Game Over screen looks, and tapping down your initials for the high score table is no less unsurprising in its looks. Still, could be worse.

Screenshots from further levels and the Game Over screen from the ZX Spectrum version.

The SPECTRUM version offers no real progression in graphics past the enemy pushing boxes at you, and the bird flying above the train carrying a cash bag. Too bad, but I'm sure the 48k memory restriction had a lot to do with how much the team was able to squeeze in. This probably also meant ditching the high score table and just having the highest score shown in the top right corner of the in-game screen.

Screenshots from further levels and the "enter name" screen from the Amstrad CPC version.

Finally, further levels in the AMSTRAD version continue with the manner we've seen so far, and add two new gameplay elements into the mix - the boxes and the foot-grabbers. Getting a slight advantage over the SPECTRUM version also comes in having an actual high score table, which necessitates a screen where you input your initials. Nothing impressive, but it does bring that much more longevity to it - at least if you have a disk drive.

Although I prefer the AMSTRAD version's variety in background graphics, as well as its optimal style of the horse-and-rider combo, the C64 version does approach the original with better precision. Not only does it have scrolling between all the train car switches, but the beginning of each new level is based on waiting for the moving train to reach the end before you jump on it. The SPECTRUM version just lacks too much in content to be a real contestant to the other two 8-bits.




I never really thought about this before, but the soundtrack in Express Raider is a bit unconventional. Firstly, there are more little fanfares than actual background music that goes on for longer than five seconds, and the only in-game background music comes in the horse-riding segment. The other long-form piece of music is played during the bit where you enter your initials into the high score table. Of sound effects, there are plenty enough, ranging from steam engine puffs to gunshots through all sorts of dings and dongs, punches and moans and whatnot. As is only to be expected from an arcade game of this age, the entire game sounds a bit plastic and too modern for its own good, when you should expect clangy saloon pianos, banjos and upright bass. Happily, the light-heartedness of the music triumphs over its cheapness, and the music is catchy enough to be memorable.

Unfortunately for the SPECTRUM fans, there is no music in their version, and there is no 128k version available to get better sounds. It's all just farty noises in different pitches for each purpose, whether it's bottles flying at you, punches being delivered, the steam engine puffing or whatever. It's not a particularly attractive soundscape, I'm sorry to say.

The C64 version gets most of the music included from the original - just one or two of the fanfares are missing, and the high score tune has been replaced with the same thing you hear at the end of each traintop level, but without the train rolling noise. There's enough of variety and quality in sound effects to call it an adequate soundscape, but on the other hand, it feels a bit too stuffed of all sorts of noises. Mind you, the game takes place in a noisy environment, so that's only to be expected, but somehow it feels needlessly noisy, at least compared to the original.

However, that's still the best out of the three 8-bits, because the AMSTRAD version spouts out  seemingly random noises for the most part, focusing a lot of the time on the locomotive's steam engine noises and random beeps. You get the occasional rising-and-descending toot of a train whistle - at least, that's what I think it might be - and then you get the obligatory shooting and punching effects and such. But if you still consider that good enough, there's just not escaping the fact that there's only one proper piece of music, which is the horse-riding tune, but even that has a couple of wrong harmonic notes in the second part, if you can overlook the lack of any distinctive characteristics of any particular instrument. As such, it merely falls cleanly between the SPECTRUM and C64 soundtracks.




Well, there will be no surprises here, apart from my increasing fondness for the AMSTRAD version. Aside from that, it's clear that at this point in each 8-bit machine's life, there were still vast differences in hardware and what people knew about how to utilise them to their best advantage.

1. ARCADE: Playability 4, Graphics 4, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 12
2. COMMODORE 64: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 9
3. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 5
4. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4

Of course, this comparison wouldn't be complete without an accompanying video to show you just what's what, and how all of the data above was gathered.

That's it for now, and there'll be no real comparisons coming up next month. Hopefully, though, I can squeeze in something a bit different between my heavy real work schedule and the video stuff. Until the next time, whenever it may be, keep safe and healthy and keep on retrogaming!

1 comment:

  1. Only just found your site and I'm enjoying all the reviews and comparisons. A lot of work involved! Never really known about Amstrads before but looking at this it seems pretty nice. Thanks for another great comparison 👍