Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Matter of Import 81: Marine Boy [Orca 1982]


Another simple quickly produced arcade title from Orca that never left Japan, in Marine Boy you play a diver collecting dolphins and mermaids from the depths. At the beginning of each stage you dive into the water, swimming vertically down alongside a trench wall, avoiding or killing most of the sea life you encounter. Dolphins and mermaids give you points when you collect them. The other fish, eels, killer whales, and crabs will kill you with a touch. Jellyfish are a special case; they merely sting and paralyze you for a short time.

Your weapon against these beasts is some kind of… I don’t know, it looks like that Loony Toons extending boxing glove, but it’s probably a knife or spear or something. It doesn’t extend too far from the body, but you can swing it around as you turn, to hit the sea creatures menacing you.

You’ve also got an oxygen meter for each stage, but it doesn’t seem to deplete fast enough to be a factor, at least not in the early levels I bothered to play. When you reach the bottom of the trench you’ll find a giant clamshell that contains a larger mermaid; reach her and you’ll get bonus points for all your remaining oxygen and for each mermaid collected along the way.

For a game that’s one long extended water level the controls aren’t too bad. The graphics are in the same cartoony Orca style that feels just a little bit dated in 1982, and you do get to see new sea creatures every level… but the gameplay itself is too simple to really be engaging, and not in that addictive way. Feels more like a near-miss than their other titles, but a miss is still a miss.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Matter of Import 80: Headbanger's Heaven [Llamasoft 1982]


Headbanger’s Heaven is an early Llamasoft title for the ZX Spectrum so you know we’re in for a weird time. A rather lengthy introduction introduces us to the game; we take on the role of Chico, a British heavy metal fan, who loves to headbang so much that he’s grown a bit addicted to having hammers hit him in the head. Our goal is to grab sacks of money from the right side of the screen and transport them left as a rain of hammers descends towards us, stopped only by three Space Invaders’ style bunkers along the way. Getting hit in the head by a hammer gives us points, getting hit anywhere else costs us a life.

Chico can take 10 hammer blows to the dome before getting a headache, so to reset that meter you’ll need to get hit by a red hammer, which is apparently filled with painkillers. Or something. I don’t know, man, Jeff Minter is a nutjob, but the longer you go without grabbing a red hammer the more points your head-blows are worth.

The game is simple and fast paced, but the controls aren’t terribly responsive leading to more deaths than you probably deserve. The rain of hammers quickly becomes unreasonable as well - your character takes up three “rows” on the screen, and you can only safely take hammer hits to the skull in the middle “row”, but the hammers soon fall in sheets nearly the length of the screen that both eat up your bunkers and give you no safe way to traverse.

I feel that if the difficulty and controls were fixed this quirky little game would be worth playing for the premise, but as it is I cannot recommend it.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Matter of Import 79: Jolly Jogger [Taito 1982]


Jolly Jogger is a 1982 arcade game from Taito that falls into the Maze Chase category, though closer to Amidar than Pac-Man. As the Jogger you connect lines while evading the thugs trying to catch you. Every square you successfully mark off completes a part of the design, with the goal of finishing it before the long fuse to a bomb burns off.

Having to close off all four sides of each square rather than simply claiming larger tracts of territory adds difficulty to your task, though thankfully the enemy doesn’t destroy you if they touch the lines you leave behind. Further, like in Pac-Man, there are special squares that give you the power to turn the tables on your foes for a short time once walled off.

Despite somewhat simple sprites for 1982 Jolly Jogger is actually fun to play, one of those games that I think could have done well in the US if they’d bothered to distribute it here. Perhaps Taito simply didn’t think “jogging in the park while being pursued by thugs” would have found resonance with American arcade audiences, but to be honest with a lot of these early games the story and context is less important than the gameplay. The sound isn’t half-bad either. It’s a welcome spin on the maze grid genre, and I give the game a B ranking.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Matter of Import 78: Hungry Horace [Sinclair Research Group 1982]


Hungry Horace is the first of three Horace games produced by William Tang for the ZX Spectrum. Each of the games has a very different gameplay than the others, and in this first outing Horace finds himself in a fixed-screen maze chase game. 

In the game you, as Horace, move through the maze-like park eating flowers and avoiding the park guards. On each board you’ll find bells that can be rung to scare guards for a short time - once scared, the guards can be caught and thrown out of the park, according to the manual - though it just looks like you’ve eaten them in play.

While this does bear some superficial resemblance to Pac-Man the layouts are entirely different, and you travel from screen to the next by exiting through one-way gates as you’d like, rather than once all of a board’s flowers have been devoured. New Guards will enter the levels the same way, from time to time.
Some of the level designs are distinctly unfair, with long winding corridors that make it almost impossible not to get caught by the guards in - particularly that of the third board.

Visually Hungry Horace looks good for a ZX Spectrum game, and the sound effects are decent. Controls are a bit of a pain - Q and Z for up and down, I and P for left and right - but after a few adjustment mishaps you’ll pick it up soon enough. Overall, it’s one of the more charming and playable early titles for the system.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Matter of Import 77: Talbot [ADK 1982]


Talbot was an early 1982 maze game produced by Alpha Denshi, a company that would later go on to find success producing games like World Heroes for SNK. In Talbot you play a rabbit breeder whose bunnies have escaped. You have to recapture them with the help of your faithful dog - a talbot, the breed for whom the game is named - before the poachers capture them.

Each round plays out a bit like Ali Baba or Lupin, but with rabbits instead of treasure. You and the computer controlled poachers try to grab as many of the rabbits as possible before the round’s time runs out - if you have more, you win, and move on to the next round. The more rabbits you collect the more slowly you move, and if you come into contact with poachers anywhere but in your own hutch - where they can try to steal rabbits you’ve already collected - you lose a life.

You do have the aid of your faithful Talbot, however, who is roaming the maze with you. With the tap of a button you can instruct him to set a trap that will slow down rabbits or poachers that pass through.

While the graphics are a bit primitive for a 1982 arcade title, the premise is certainly unique, as is the mechanic of the independent dog character wandering the maze with you. It’s by no means a great game but worth playing once or twice, certainly.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Matter of Import 76: Escape [New Generation 1982]

 Escape is a top-down maze-chase game released for the ZX Spectrum in 1982. The player seeks to evade dinosaurs within a hedge maze. There are five difficulty levels, each of which adds a new dinosaur, culminating in the pterodactyl’s addition to level five. Other than it’s ability to occasionally fly, each of the dinosaurs plays approximately the same, and moves at the same speed.

The goal of the game is to find the axe you need to break down the door and end the level before the dinosaurs catch you. This is difficult for two reasons - firstly, the ax appears to be heavy as hell - you’re much faster without it, but as soon as you pick it up you slow to the same speed as your pursuers. This makes timing its acquisition critical, as you can only just keep ahead of them once you have it.

Of course, the second problem with the axe is that it’s invisible - you’ll only know where it is once you’ve run over its space on the map, and even then you’ll have to press a button to pick it up. Same goes if you drop it because you need a burst of speed - it stays where you left it, but there’s nothing on the screen to indicate where this is.

Each maze is fairly large, so you’ll have to run across the axe by chance, and then make a dash to the door in the upper left corner. Once you escape, that’s it, game’s over - you can enter your initials if you like, then select a difficulty level to play again.

Escape is a fairly decent single-screen maze game for the platform, though any given run will be highly random in its difficulty depending on how long it takes you to find the axe… and there’s a frustration factor if you can’t figure out where it is.

The dinosaur sprites are small but cute, and it makes decent use of the ZX Spectrum’s limitations.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Matter of Import 75: Strike Bowling [Taito 1982]


Strike Bowling is a two player trackball bowling game released by Taito in 1982. The controls are simple - roll sideways to position your ball, then a sharp up to throw. You have the option to pre-select a curve for your turn and can add a little spin mid-roll, but for the most part if you aim for the right spot between the 1 and 2 or 1 and 3 pins you can score a strike.

If only real bowling was so consistent.

Otherwise the only difference between Strike Bowling and any other arcade bowling game are the animated cheerleaders dancing off to the side. Does professional bowling have cheerleaders? I think not, Taito. I think not.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Matter of Import 74: Shaken But Not Stirred [Richard Shepherd Software Ltd 1982]


Shaken But Not Stirred is perhaps the first James Bond themed game, and an unlicensed one at that, coming to the ZX Spectrum in the form of a text adventure game. It pits the super-spy against a master criminal named Doctor Death, blackmailing the world with nuclear missiles.

The first part of the game is less a traditional interactive fiction game than an extended anagram puzzle. Each turn you’re asked to pick a city to visit from a list - though there’s no error if you choose another city, or just enter a word salad, they’re accepted as valid responses.

The reason for this is that upon arrival you’re given a completely random encounter, from a combat scenario to a clue. This is in the form of a single letter to the puzzle, whose solution is yet another city you’ve got to visit to reach the second part of the game.

Having discovered the location of Doctor Death’s lair, you head to an island to search for his lair. Controls here are a more standard cardinal direction - N, S, W, E - in a worldspace largely inhabited by homicidal animals. And this, of course, means a lot of combat.

Tedious combat. To defeat a foe in either stage of the game you need to type out the name of the weapon you’re using. Have a secret cyanide pistol? Get ready to type out “Secret Cyanide Pistol.” Not pistol. Not Secret Pistol. You need to type out the full name, every time. Hidden Knife. Walther PPK Pistol. Whatever. Type it out. 

Each weapon kills its target instantly, but each - even the knife or watch garrotte - only has a few uses. And once this runs out? Will, Jimmy Bond can’t judo chop his way out of trouble, and running isn’t very English so… yeah. Just hope you find the lair fast, because once you’re on the island there’s no running back to London to reload.

On the one hand, it’s nice to see a departure from the standard parser-based text adventure for the ZX. Unfortunately every twist Shaken But Not Stirred provides only serves to make play more irritating.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Matter of Import 73: Funky Bee [1982 Orca]


Today’s Matter of Import is another rushed-feeling arcade title from Orca, and another horitzontal shooter. This time the player is a bee dodging trees and other insects, trying to fly over flowers while avoiding the hostile insects doing their best to collide with you.

To protect itself the bee has a stinger, a projectile whose slow movement speed provides much of the game’s difficulty as you only get one on the screen at a time and it takes forever to reach the top if you miss your target. Fortunately most of the insects’ movement patterns seem to ignore you, so learning to lead them is something the player can pick up fast.

At the end of each level is a honeycomb you can fill with nectar gathered from the flowers you hit along the way, accruing a massive bonus.

My evaluation is similar to my thoughts on the other Orca titles I’ve covered - they’d have been middle of the road if released years earlier. As it is, your bee controls poorly, the difficulty is provided by the frustration your attacks cause, and the sprites are both simple and poorly designed.

If Funky Bee has a good quality, it’s the music - even if short and repetitive, it’s not a tune I’ve heard in a hundred other arcade titles, or poorly digitized public domain money-savers.

Is it enough to save the game? No… it’s just “okay.” But at least it doesn’t add to the irritation of having to play the game long enough to form an opinion.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Matter of Import 72: Chequered Flag [Sinclair Research 1982]


Chequered Flag was one of the first racing games developed for the ZX Spectrum, and a great example of an early driving simulator. Rather than focusing on pure arcade action, the game has the player managing fuel and engine temperature while avoiding hazards.

Played from the first person perspective, Chequered Flag has the player racing laps alone trying to get the shortest time possible on one of ten different tracks modeled on famous Grand Prix circuits. Drifting too far off the track or hitting glass can damage your car, requiring the player to spend precious moments in the pit getting repairs. Likewise, longer races will require the player to reach the pit in time to refuel.

The game provides three different cars to choose from, each of which provides a slightly different interface and play experience.  The Ferreti Turbo, modeled after the Ferrari, is the most difficult vehicle with the most powerful engine. The McFaster Special is ideal for beginners, as it’s the only one with an automatic transmission - having to focus on shifting gears while learning the controls can get a little overwhelming. The Psion Pegasus is middle of the road, with easy handling and a manual transmission.

This being an early ZX Spectrum title, of course the controls bear mentioning. 0 accelerates, I breaks, and the keys on the bottom row control your gear shifting - keys from “M” right shifts up, keys from “N” left shift down.

Steering is a special case, an attempt to simulate analog controls with a digital keyboard. A is a fast turn of the wheel left with S as more of a gentle drift, with the S and D keys performing the same to the right.

It is, in fact, a little clumsy, and definitely necessary to make some of the sharp turns on some of the tracks with anything like a good time.

Aside from the fact that you’re alone on the road the game plays pretty well, complex without being too overwhelming, challenging enough after you’ve picked up the controls, with some decent variety of track and car. One of the better racing titles for the home computer market, and one of the best games on the Spectrum.