Review: Chase HQ 2 – Special Criminal Investigation (Atari ST)

ST Format Review (Issue 18)

Equipment Used/Recommended

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator.
  • Any of Automation 473, Pompey Pirated 66, Vectronix 518
  • Speedlink USB Joystick

My Review

And so we finally conclude this run of racing games – ST Format 18 had a lot of them. This takes us back to the more traditional rolling road found in Outrun and Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge, only this time, as with the original Chase HQ, there is vehicular combat.

So by now you’ll be thoroughly familiar with the rolling road racing game. The road it generated in front of you with horizontal stripes while road-side sprites whizz past, to give the impression of speed. Meanwhile the camera might pan left or right but mostly your car moves left or right around the screen. You get tight bends, in this case you get the road splitting into two parts, and that’s how you make a late 80s racing game.

In this case we’re chasing a criminal, and helpfully said criminal has attached a huge floating red arrow to the roof of his car so you can spot him in a crowd. Your job as a police officer is to apprehend the perp, by blowing his car up. Not quite sure how that works.

In this case you’ve got a couple of methods you can go for. You can ram him (or her, let’s not be sexist) and that’ll do some damage. Or you can hold down the fire button which sees your passenger stand up in his seat and fire what I think is a gun at the car ahead, or at random other cars if the mood takes you (nobody seems to mind too much).

So the game starts with a loading screen that already feels a few years out of date, and takes us to the start of the race via some other semi-static screens. And then we get to the driving. It’s all standard stuff as you’d expect, distant scenery, rolling road, roadside sprites, other cars as sprites scaling in and out of view, all the usual suspects. We have a bit of a problem though. In the same issue of ST Format is the brilliant Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge. That game runs at a decent pace and the driving feels great. This game runs like a slug on valium and the driving feels unresponsive. I reckon it’s chugging out about 2 frames a second. Even the ST can do better than this. Oncoming cars are quite hard to dodge when you have two frames in which to do it, but at least colliding with other objects only slows you down a bit.

Ok so the driving sucks but what about the combat? Well ramming vehicles is ok but shooting is.. well it feels like you’re firing a pea-shooter, with no real feeling that you’re having any impact whatsoever on the other car. There’s a tremendous lack of connection as your shot jerks around the screen eventually maybe hitting something – perhaps it would be easier to tell if the frame rate was better.

Video

Here’s a video to show you just how bad the game is. I want you to be fully aware of how awful it is. Automation put it on the same menu disk as Codemasters Italy 1990, the worst football game ever created so maybe they were just getting all the absolute stinkers out in one go.

Verdict

This is absolutely 100% your typical lazy Ocean game. Take a license, minimal effort on the game, shove it out and hope the marketing does the rest. It’s genuinely baffling to me that ST Format can give this 78%. One line stands out from the review: “The scrolling is fast and smooth” and regarding sprites “you won’t have time to admire them as they thunder past” while the soundtrack is “funky”. Graphics get an 8 – what on earth was going on here. I reckon there’s quite a good chance they were testing the Amiga version (and given we’ve already seen them use the Amiga version for screenshots in their review of Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge that isn’t so unlikely) – the music is a lot better and the road rolls a little more smoothly (still not thundering past mind you but more tolerable at least) which is in line with their comments.

Don’t play this game. It is not a good use of your time. Do something more interesting instead like playing Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge or Toyota Celica GT Rally if you want a racing game from this issue of ST Format. Personally I’d rate this much lower than ST Format’s 78% – probably something more in the 50s. Avoid.

Reviews From This Issue of ST Format

Review: Golden Axe (Atari ST)

ST Format Review (Issue 18) Equipment Used/Recommended MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator. Any of Automation 399, Fuzion 23, Pompey Pirates 64, SuperGAU 402, Vectronix 281/828 Speedlink USB Joystick My Review So we’re bringing out the big guns.…More

Review: Pang (Atari ST)

ST Format Review (Issue 18) Equipment Used/Recommended MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator. Any of Automation 427B, Flame Of Finland 48, Pompey Pirates 65, SuperGAU 473/805, Vectonix 35/112/801 Speedlink USB Joystick My Review I’ll start with a confession…More

Review: Badlands (Atari ST)

ST Format Review (Issue 18) Equipment Used/Recommended MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator. Any of Automation 392, Flame Of Finland 48, Medway Boys 102, Pompey Pirates 69, Vectronix 417/667 Speedlink USB Joystick My Review Continuing our run of…More

Review: Toyota Celica GT Rally (Atari ST)

ST Format Review (Issue 18) Equipment Used/Recommended MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator. The usual suspects didn’t work, getting stuck with joystick controls not working, but there’s a Pompey Pirates crack available within the TOSEC collection found on…More

Review: Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (Atari ST)

ST Format Review (Issue 18) Equipment Used/Recommended MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator. Any of Automation 383A, Fuzion 20, Medway Boys 98, Pompey Pirates 60, Vectronix 219/904 Speedlink USB Joystick My Review Making our way through the wonderful…More

Not-Quite-Review: Nitro (Atari ST)

ST Format Review (Issue 18) Equipment Used/Recommended MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator. Any of Automation 377, Flame Of Finland 45, Pompey Pirates 61, SuperGAU 476/809, Vectronix 192/342/814 Speedlink USB Joystick My Review This game did not score…More

Review: Speedball 2 (Atari ST)

ST Format Review (Issue 18) Equipment Used/Recommended MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator. Any of Automation 400, Fuzion 30, SuperGAU 374/541, Vectronix 593/785 Speedlink USB Joystick My Review In many ways there’s really bugger all point in me…More

What’s Coming Up (and what isn’t)

So we’ve got a few more reviews lined up from ST Format issue 18 with Chase HQ 2, Pang and Golden Axe arriving over the next couple of weeks. However, having lingered quite a long time on issue 18 I reckon it might be time to move on, after checking out some of the upcoming games.

The first game not to make the cut is Nine Lives, from Atari. The visuals are gorgeous, no doubt, but there are some pretty big issues. The scroling is done half-a-screen at a time in a jerking motion, but I could live with that. The bigger issue is that the jumping is terrible. Either a pointless vertical jump or holding the joystick in the down position while the cat tail on the right goes up to try to judge just how much energy to put into a horizontal jump, which can go enormous distances. That might be less of an issue if it were not for the tiny visible area you’re presented with – most of the time you just end up in some spikes. Difficult is fine, but this is just due to poor controls rather than any cleverness of design.

Car-Vup also missed the cut by being a reasonably competent platformer but really doing very little to excite me. The main character is clearly based on the taxi from the Roger Rabbit movie and visually it’s decent enough, reasonably smooth, but it’s not quite got enough in it that I could get a decent article out of it.

Murders In Space looks like it might be interesting but it has an absolute turd of an interface. I do intend to come back to it at some point to see what I’m missing but I’ll probably save it for a run of longer articles about deeper games rather than try to cram it into the current 3/4 day cadence of reviews.

Also missing the cut for now are Omnicron Conspiracy, Lost Patrol, Supremacy and ATF 2. Of those I reckon there’s a good chance I’ll come back for Lost Patrol at some point, but right now I need some fresh blood!

I’ll be looking at issue 19 next – it has a few notable releases among what is a bit of a post-Christmas lull. I love Damocles so I might have a look at Mission Disk 1 if there’s enough in it to be worth doing, and I don’t need asking twice to have a look at Powermonger which is one of my favourites. Ninja Remix might be an opportunity to undo the awfulness of the previous release I reviewed, while Ivan Stewart’s Super Off Road might be fun. Prince Of Persia should be known to all of us and I might have a look at Robocop 2 given it topped the chart for ages if I recall. It’s always fun to review truly awful games so I might have a look at Edd The Duck and Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. All in all, a slimmer issue will make for an easier time for me!

https://i2.wp.com/stformat.com/stf19/pages_nx1500/stf19_001.jpg?w=782

Review: Badlands (Atari ST)

ST Format Review (Issue 18)

Equipment Used/Recommended

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator.
  • Any of Automation 392, Flame Of Finland 48, Medway Boys 102, Pompey Pirates 69, Vectronix 417/667
  • Speedlink USB Joystick

My Review

Continuing our run of racing games with only this and Chase HQ 2 to go in issue 18 of ST Format we come to Badlands. I’m writing this just after reviewing the frankly awful Nitro, and this is another top-down-ish racer. Badlands takes a slightly different approach to that taken by Nitro and Supercars 1/2 in that there’s no scrolling. Each race takes place on a track occupying a single screen, a la Super Sprint.

The courses themselves are far better than those found in Nitro, being quite inventive with an arrow guiding you to take specific routes where there is divergence, allowing the game to create far more in a limited area by having you go round a roundabout for instance. Further, there are tunnels and hills, and gates that open and close to change your potential route as you’re driving, making this a surprisingly intricate game.

The game has an upgrade system which seems to let you choose one thing to upgrade between races rather than operating on a cash system like Supercars 2 – personally I’d rather have that but presumably they felt this approach best for game balance. As it is, while options include boosting your speed, I’m not sure I actually want the cars going any faster as they zip around the screen a little too rapidly for my liking. Handling is generally pretty good, though it can be a little too easy to get stuck on scenery sometimes, and this becomes a particular problem in tunnels where you can’t see your car.

These games shine brightest in multiplayer but sadly I was unable to test this – no doubt it would be fun though as really these games always are, though I can imagine the arrow system causing some confusion if two players are in the same area following different arrows. I suspect that to get my wife to play it we’d need the cars to be quite a bit slower and the course quite a bit more readable.

Now obviously a game like this is never going to be enormously impressive on a technical level but it is smooth, and what’s there works well. My gut feeling is that this would actually be better with some more 8-bit style of presentation as at times readability is not the best. Possibly the cars could stand to be a little smaller too to give a bit more room for movement. The art is ok if a little muddy and one doesn’t find the same kind of charm found in Supercars 2. Sound is ok, nothing to write home about but it does its job.

The Verdict

Badlands is a decent game of this type, which could have been more fun with a couple of fairly simple adjustments. As it is there’s enough here that you’ll likely be able to have a good time with it, though personally I’d rather play one of the Supercars games, but that’s just me being finnicky probably.

Resources

Manual: https://www.gamesdatabase.org/Media/SYSTEM/Commodore_64//Manual/formated/Badlands_-1990-_Domark_Software.pdf

Reviews From This Issue of ST Format

Review: Toyota Celica GT Rally (Atari ST)

https://i2.wp.com/www.atarimania.com/st/boxes/hi_res/toyota_celica_d7.jpg?w=782
Box-art for Toyota Celica GT Rally

ST Format Review (Issue 18)

A respectable score from ST Format – slightly harsh description of the engine sound but probably accurate.

Equipment Used/Recommended

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator.
  • The usual suspects didn’t work, getting stuck with joystick controls not working, but there’s a Pompey Pirates crack available within the TOSEC collection found on archive.org.
  • Speedlink USB Joystick

My Review

So this one’s a bit of a personal favourite of mine. Toyota Celica GT Rally is Gremlin’s take on rally driving, an early foray into the world of 3D and a game with a shedload of innovations of which some are rare even today. It was my first taste of something approaching proper sim racing, my second being Geoff Crammond’s wonderful Microprose Formula One Grand Prix (and its sequels would keep me going for years).

There are few pleasures in life like driving a car sideways at high speed. My personal favourite real world experience of this came at a race track in the UK – Donington. Some of you will know it, some of you won’t, but it’s most notable for Ayrton Senna winning a ridiculously wet race there. The track itself has some wonderful undulations and features a magnificent uphill blind right hander over the crest of a hill so you have no idea what the corner looks like til you get to it. However, the area of interest here is on the main straight. Now this straight originally had a chicane in the middle, a simple right, left chicane which just broke things up a little to give a braking zone for overtaking and to control speeds a little. Now the track was a little too short for F1 so what they instead did was to at the right-left chicane fork off to the left instead for a left-right chicane and then a straight line to a 180 degree hairpin, back again to the chicane and a hairpin back onto the main straight where the old chicane was. It sounds utterly mickey mouse and it is. However, it’s bloody brilliant for taking a Caterham R300 sideways around. Two main memories of that, the first being that my best man was in the passenger seat as I took to the track having never been there before in my life with only iRacing for experience and proceeded to absolutely floor it the whole way around, and then go sideways around those hairpins scaring the living daylights out of him. The second was doing some synchronised drifting around those same corners, the two hastily-added hairpins, with a lovely old Porsche 911. Honestly it was one of the best days of my life and I wouldn’t have done it without years of racing sims leading me to that point.

Anyway, back to the game. So you get to experience the joy of throwing a fast car around narrow country roads with lots of trees and houses to crash into, quite often sideways, as is the way with rallying. Rally drivers are nutters, and to be fair so are those who watch in person, often standing around in rain and mud inches from the road seeing cars come hurtling around barely under control typically on loose mud or gravel surfaces. It’s an incredible sport, visceral like no other and marked by intense dedication among its fans and participants. Ideal for a computer game then.

Gremlin could easily have gone down the rolling road path, with sprites at the edge of the track to represent the trees you might crash into. It would undoubtedly have run faster, and might have sold more copies. They didn’t, however, and perhaps that’s why Celica was overshadowed by Lotus (in hindsight releasing both at the same time was an odd choice). Still, to me they made the right choice to go full 3D. Indeed throughout the game the choices made reflect a desire for quality over doing things the easy way.

That choice to go fully 3D enabled them to give the car something approaching proper physics. No it’s not quite Dirt Rally, or even Colin McRae Rally, but it’s pretty damn good for a 16-bit machine. You can throw the car around convincingly and the back will swing out as you’d expect. Success requires you to turn in early for those sharp bends to allow you to swing that rear out and get round the corner rather than into the house inconveniently placed right where you might crash into it. What kind of idiot puts a house there?

All through this your co-driver calmly reads off instructions ‘hard left’, ‘easy right’, without a care in the world. You can even prepare him before the race and tell him what to say and when as you move through a map of the track. All this is wonderfully innovative stuff and way ahead of its time. The sound is excellent even beyond the speech synthesis, with a cracking bit of sampled music accompanying the intro and menus, while in the car you’re treated to some wonderful sampled engine sounds. On the ST it was rare to have samples in-game, these were generally kept for menus and intros where there was less CPU work to do, but Gremlin really went for it.

One of the things that really grabbed me as a kid, and honestly I have no idea why, is ths snow. You’re driving around sliding everywhere because there’s absolutely bugger-all grip, and the snow is coming down and your windscreen gets harder and harder to see through as a layer of snow builds up, and then you press F1 to turn the wipers on, and they actually work, and what’s more they clear the right areas relative to the path they take. The areas the wipers don’t reach build up with more snow, just like in real life. It’s such a silly thing, such a tiny addition and yet one that must have taken enormous amounts of work, and they did it brilliantly. I honestly don’t remember seeing anything like that for a good number of years after that as it took quite a while for rain and snow on windscreens to come to PC racing sims.

One thing that’s worth mentioning is the difficulty. It’s hard. You will not get away with flat-footing it around every corner like it’s Outrun. You have to slow down, you have to think about each corners, about how far the car will drift, and you do not want to end up on the grass on the outside of a corner because the lack of grip will make it an absolute bitch to get back on again. Further, while the UK is tricky enough it is at least tarmac roads, even if you do get a bit of rain to make things a little more slippery. However, in Mexico you get to drive in the desert and face frequent sandstorms which make visibility poor and your windscreen wipers will do nothing to fix that. Finishing up in Finland you get the snow, which means zero grip. Visibility is fine, your wipers take care of that, but you have to seriously watch your pace or risk flying off the track.

Video

We’ve got another video – slowly getting the hang of things and we now have much better audio, with the game sound dipping so you can hear me more easily, and I’ve used a better mic. On this occasion I’ve done the chat after playing, and I’ll continue to experiment with the format until I find something I’m comfortable with. Hope you enjoy it.

The Verdict

So the all-important question here – is it any good? Well, there’s not much suspense around this, yes it’s bloody brilliant. It may be a little slow and jerky but the controls remain crisp, and the slower pace is required to allow it to achieve something akin to sim physics. If you consider the traditional Outrun-type rolling road game – effectively the road is a canned animation, it’s generated on the fly but it’s canned. The player impacts the speed it runs at by speeding up and slowing down and might move that animation left and right by moving around the track, but the game is still effectively only registering that you’re at frame 387 on the track and your car/bike is 60 pixels from the furthest left edge, or something of that nature. It can never properly understand the corner and the forces associated with it, only cheating a bit to say that there is a corner of maybe one of 5 levels of sharpness and drifting you out accordingly, but that’s about it. A true 3D game can consider your orientation relative to the track, your momentum, and what surface you’re running on. It makes it much easier to implement real physics because there’s a real 2D plane (the ground) upon which to enact those physics.

For me, the realism combined with some wonderful presentation touches, the choice to go with sampled sounds, all adds up to a brilliant game. It’s hard as nails and in career mode you can’t afford to screw up if you want to keep up with the fastest drivers, but the game is absolutely tonnes of fun. The ST version is very close to the Amiga version with the Amiga having proper stereo sound for the music and higher quality samples but otherwise there’s not too much in it, so you’ll have fun with either version. So, go play it, have fun and let me know in the comments how you got on with it.

Resources

Manual: https://www.gamesdatabase.org/Media/SYSTEM/Amstrad_CPC/manual/Formated/Toyota_Celica_GT_Rally_-1991-_Gremlin_Graphics.pdf

Review: Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (Atari ST)

ST Format Review (Issue 18)

Equipment Used/Recommended

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator.
  • Any of Automation 383A, Fuzion 20, Medway Boys 98, Pompey Pirates 60, Vectronix 219/904
  • Speedlink USB Joystick

My Review

Making our way through the wonderful ST Format Issue 18, we come to the first of 5 racing games I plan to cover. The fun thing is we get to try 3 of the major groups of racing game – we get the Outrun-type with the 2D sprites on a rolling-road using stripes to convey motion found in Lotus 1 and Chase HQ 2, we have the top-down racers Nitro and Badlands (though they are in separate sub-genres themselves with Nitro more akin to Supercars 2 as a pure top-down while Badlands is closer to the likes of Super Off Road with it’s more isometric perspective), and finally we have a 3D game offering a more hardcore simulation in the form of Toyota Celica GT Rally. Of this issue’s racing games, the only one I had previously played is Toyota Celica GT Rally so I’m thoroughly looking forward to that, but before we get there let’s talk a bit about Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge from the wonderful Gremlin.

Just like Outrun, Lotus charges you with the arduous task of driving a lovely fast red sports car through undulating landscapes, revelling in the joy of breaking the speed limit. Sadly there’s no lovely young lady in the passenger seat, or if there is we can’t see her because the car isn’t a convertable. Tyres squeal as we hurtle around corners at unfeasible speeds and engines rev as we eek out ever last drop of performance. Locales are not quite as exotic as those of the Sega classic but they’re fun in their own way if a little restrained, but at least we get to fully enjoy them rather than spend our time cursing the ST port’s sluggish frame rate.

Lotus takes the Outrun formula and makes it a little closer to a proper racing game. It breaks with the Outrun and Super Hang-On tradition where you’d start at a sensible pace and the vehicles around you would instantly reach top speed and zoom off into the distance by having the other cars actually accelerate properly. Additionally, other vehicles are not just moving hazards placed randomly around the course. Instead each car makes its way around the lap at a pace befitting its position in the race and the current location on the circuit (so slower up hill and on bends for instance). All this is a welcome departure, and we add to that having proper laps of a circuit rather than the more traditional road trip offered by Outrun and Super Hang-On. This of course saves development costs as they don’t have to build so much track.

Where it falls down a little is that while the cars are circulating the track properly, they’re not on any kind of racing line. Indeed what they actually do is veer from side to side across the track, to provide that rolling hazard beloved of older rolling road games. So near and yet so far. One of the things I noted when running both the ST and Amiga versions was that while on the Amiga the cars move smoothly from side to side, the ST version has the car move in stages, jumping from position to position in what looks like 16-pixel increments. I imagine there’s a technical reason for this, to maintain performance, but once you notice it this does become a little jarring.

Races are entertaining and varied with a wide selection of tracks to choose from and races featuring a little more in the way of tactics than you might expect – longer races require refueling and a sensible driver will choose to time pit stops to avoid losing too many places or worse still emerging into traffic.

On a technical level the game performs well, with a smooth rolling road that compares favourably even with the mighty Super Hang On. It takes the traditional approach of using stripes across the road to convey speed alongside an assortment of signs placed alongside the road, because in 1990 thankfully we had yet to discover health and safety. One interesting detail by the way – those screenshots in the ST Format review are from the Amiga version. I know this because instead of stripes across the road it shows the proper road markings shown by the Amiga version. Naughty!

Back to the racing, the consistent performance allows you to get an excellent feel of speed from the game. The road really flies past. This is likely helped by only using half the screen in single-player mode (an admittedly odd decision which clearly stems from the choice to make two-player split screen racing the main priority. It’s impressive then given the limited vertical space that the game does such a good job with hills and long sweeping bends, showing that this was a wise choice. If you race in single-player mode the bottom half of the screen is occupied by a picture of a Lotus in the garage being looked after by some mechanics (which most Lotus owners will consider a familiar sight). Sensibly they went with a horizontal split (I still don’t understand why Nintendo chose a horizontal split for Mario Kart 8 – what were they thinking?) and it still maintains a decent framerate.

Away from the track there’s some absolutely gorgeous pixel art. Highlights include a photorealistic Lotus flashing its popup headlights at you (my Dad had a habit of buying cars he couldn’t afford on hire-purchase and then not paying for them – one such car was a Lotus Eclat and that thing typified the Lotus acronym Lots Of Trouble Usually Serious but its main habit was to have the popup headlights wink at you and then just start popping up and down at random). Elsewhere we have lovely fact sheets about the car, gorgeous renderings of the interior, and even the music selector is lovely with a close-up of the car’s stereo.

Something I quite like, and which is shared with the Supercars games also from Gremlin, is the stable of fictitious drivers you get to race against. Now admittedly this works more if you’re familiar with F1 drivers of the late 80s, but thankfully I am so I get to properly enjoy it. So we get Ayrton Sendup (Ayrton Senna), T Hairy Bootson (Thierry Boutson), Ricardo Pastry (Ricardo Patrese), M Carburettor (Michele Alboretto) and Mickey Louder (Niki Lauda) among others. It’s a nice touch which raises a chuckle from me, and the tradition of silly names carries on with Toyota Celica GT Rally (also from Gremlin – they made a LOT of racing games) featuring the likes of Fungus The Bogeyman.

While we’re talking about sound, while it’s not as nice as the Amiga’s sampled goodness it’s still pretty good. The music isn’t at the same level as Outrun or Super Hang-On of course but it’s competently done, but more importantly the engine noise is a good step above the usual awfulness one associates with these games on the ST. It actually sounds quite meaty!

Video Of Me Playing

I put together a little video to show you how the ST version compares with the Amiga version and how well it runs in general. Sound is a little iffy as I’m still ironing out the details there.

Improved STE Version In The Works…

So a bit of a late edit here – a chap on twitter (@RetroRacing) alerted me to this and Atari Crypt have been covering it and it looks awesome – it’s pretty damn close to having the Amiga version on the ST. Impressive stuff. Video in the Atari Crypt link – I can’t embed it on my site, presumably it’s protected.

UPDATE: The STE Enhanced Version is out and it’s amazing

The Verdict

So is it any good? And where does it stand in the pantheon of rolling road racers? Well, I would say that at the end of 1990, at point of release, it’s the best yet created, though had Outrun received a better port that might not be the case (I love the locations so much). Of course there are the sequels which I’ve not yet played, and games like Nigel Mansell’s World Championship, Vroom and Domark’s F1 came later of which I’ve only really played Nigel Mansell’s game. Maybe those will turn out to be even better but you’ll have to stay tuned to find out. In terms of more modern games its closest relative is probably Horizon Chase Turbo which is aesthetically more Outrun but in gameplay is more Lotus. Honestly I have a shedload of fun in both games, they’re brilliant fun so if you’ve not got Horizon Chase Turbo yet, go get it, and if you’ve not played the Lotus games yet, go get 1 and then try 2 and 3 to see if they’re as good. Gameplay is a big step forward from the Sega classics, even if the scenery isn’t quite as exciting, and the technical execution is so good you really have to try it.

Resources

Manual: https://www.gamesdatabase.org/Media/SYSTEM/Amstrad_CPC/manual/Formated/Lotus_Esprit_Turbo_Challenge_-_1990_-_Gremlin_Graphics.pdf

Not-Quite-Review: Nitro (Atari ST)

ST Format Review (Issue 18)

Equipment Used/Recommended

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator.
  • Any of Automation 377, Flame Of Finland 45, Pompey Pirates 61, SuperGAU 476/809, Vectronix 192/342/814
  • Speedlink USB Joystick

My Review

This game did not score well. 41% is a very very low score for ST Format, and yet generally I like this kind of game, so I thought I may as well give it a shot and let you, dear reader, know whether the game is actually decent, or a great big steaming turd.

So what is Nitro? Well, it’s a top-down racer, and we’ve seen a few of those over the years. My personal favourites of the genre are Supercars 2 (largely because it has oodles of charm between races), the Micro Machines games (because of the oodles of charm during races) and Death Rally (because it’s just a brilliantly-executed example of the genre).

Well that’s a nice picture of a car but it doesn’t tell us much about the game does it – as it happens it’s just a random picture which pops up before the game starts. No reason for it to be there, perhaps they thought it would look good in the adverts or that some reviewers might include it.

I mean it’s pretty I guess, the chap has a certain Chaos Engine vibe going on. The UI is quite odd though – surely there’s a better way than this?

So in ST Format it shows the 3 types of car side by side but actually what you get is this screen and you move the joystick left and right to flick between the cars with no information on what they do (thank god for reviewers).

Another random picture – no idea why it comes up.

And.. so this is the game then. I’m pretty sure I could make that in STOS. It’s sluggish, scrolling is exclusively vertical which rather limits the possibilities for the route, sound is god-awful chip rubbish, handling is dire, tracks are poorly designed (too narrow in places) and.. yeah honestly don’t bother with this one.

The Verdict

Sometimes you should listen to reviewers. ST Format were correct, this is a turkey. Next up, Badlands.

Review: Speedball 2 (Atari ST)

ST Format Review (Issue 18)

Equipment Used/Recommended

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator.
  • Any of Automation 400, Fuzion 30, SuperGAU 374/541, Vectronix 593/785
  • Speedlink USB Joystick

My Review

In many ways there’s really bugger all point in me reviewing Speedball 2. You already know it’s brilliant, it’s one of the greatest games released in the 16-bit era and, alongside Sensible Soccer, stands as one of the best local multiplayer games you could hope to play. The strange thing is it only got 88% in ST Format despite being a game that stands the test of time far better than 99% of 16-bit releases. I can only imagine they knocked points off because they didn’t think it offered enough over the first game, and yet that is ludicrious.

The original came out in late 1988 (reviewed in ST/Amiga Format issue 6), a cracking little cyberpunk sports game, basically rugby with more violence. The pitch was just a single screen width with no horizontal scrolling and the metallic pitch and players lacked the chrome finish which would become a Bitmap Brothers trademark. The pitch was simpler without so many power-ups where the sequel’s 3-screen-wide pitch is covered with power-ups and resembles a pinball machine in places, and gameplay was a little cramped with little opportunity to move the ball around to evade your opponent. The prequel was competent and reasonably fun but the Bitmap Brothers had not yet found their identity. In common with their other work, the game was smooth and clearly well-programmed (though on the ST this is easier to achieve when scrolling is only vertical).

The sequel then was the Bitmap Brothers going back to Speedball and making it a Bitmap Brothers game. Graphically it’s acquired that Bitmaps magic, that metallic sheen, that was missing in the first game. The pixel art is magnificent with some incredible stills between matches in addition to the beauty of the match itself. It’s bigger and better with a bigger pitch, more power-ups, more ways to score, hell you even get points for injuring your opponents, which adds to the fun/carnage. The addition of a fantastic management layer with coins appearing on the pitch to help you fund new signings or training for your existing squad is in itself a huge enhancement. Replays of injuries and goals? Yes please.

The extra expanse of pitch allows a far more expansive, dare I say it, beautiful game. You can start sweeping moves out from the back, the goalkeeper passing out to your wide defenders, who can switch it into your midfielders to send a raking ball down the opposite flank, pulling your opponent this way and that, crossing a dangerous ball into the box, for your striker to violently beat the living crap out of the keeper and then sweep the ball home.

Speedball 2 shines brightest in multiplayer, as all 16-bit sports games do, but the pandemic has rather limited my options for people to play against. In the end I managed to persuade my wife to have a go, but the games ended with me beating her by 80 points (a goal is 12 points) or more which was fun for me, but not so much for her. This highlights where these sorts of games can have a bit of a weakness – if there’s a significant skill gap between players it doesn’t work so well.

Controls are similar to the first game, with movement controlled by the stick and the fire button working in context – if you don’t have the ball and it’s on the ground you launch a crunching tackle (ideally at someone’s head) while if it’s in the air you leap like a salmon to intercept the ball in flight and begin a new attacking move. Once you have the ball, like a game of rugby you can run while carrying it, but unlike rugby forward passes are fine, with a tapped fire button sending the ball towards the nearest player in the direction your stick is pointed, and a longer press sending the ball soaring into the air.

Between matches the management section (if you’re playing the league or cup) allows you to reinforce your squad with better players, while the coaching options allow you to improve those you already have, and collecting coins during the match help add funds to increase your budget for both of these, lending the game an extra layer of strategy.

One thing I’ve not yet mentioned is sound. The game kicks off with some fantastic sampled music, easily as good as anything you’d hear from an Amiga. Sadly once in the game itself it’s not quite as good as the Amiga but the chip-based sound effects are perfectly serviceable. No ice cream for ST users though. The Amiga version’s sounds make a difference in terms of the atmosphere around matches but once you’re in the game and fighting for points you soon stop noticing. While we’re comparing with the Amiga, visually it’s not too far behind. Scrolling is smooth, and animation is fluid. In match the main differences appear to be a lack of diagonal lines on the pitch in the ST version vs the Amiga, presumably due to the ST having to do something more tiled where the Amiga can simply scroll the pitch as a single image. Other than that though there really is very little to choose between them.

Evolution of a Speedball team – look at those nice friendly chaps on the left.. not sure I’d want to meet the ones on the right in a dark alley…

Difficulty is pitched pretty well, it starts out challenging though as you improve your squad the games against weaker teams start to get easier, with the games against the best opposition being as hard as you’d expect. They’re more aggressive at getting the ball back from you and you have to really think through your passing to make it work. I played several hours in the league campaign and honestly had an absolute blast, where you start with a desperately weak team and inevitably get steamrollered. In those early games I focused on collecting coins so I could buy the superstar players who would make my team work – a good quality centre forward is a must as used properly he can steamroller through the opposition and injure at least two players per match, earning an additional 20 points in addition to scoring goals (you need the pace to evade defenders). Given the game ends if you fail to achieve promotion in the first season, it becomes a race against time to build a team strong enough to compete over 14 matches against 7 other teams, and the same again in the top division. This is a clever decision as had they allowed you to noodle about in the lower division building up a team but not winning enough to go up, it would be possible to quickly build a massively-overloaded team with too much power and then steamroller the league. While I do quite like doing that kind of thing (that turtling approach mirrors my approach in Mega Lo Mania and Stronghold for instance) it’s probably wise to give the player a little nudge to get a move on, and give them more of a challenge.

Video Of Me Playing

I thought I’d put up my first ever video of me playing one of these games. In the end it’s a season and a half of action. Let me know what you think in the comments, but please try to keep it free of the racial slurs the internet seems to love.

The Verdict

By now the verdict should be obvious. If we’re going full 90s I could describe it as a stonking sports game for any self-respecting gamester, but I won’t, because I’m too old for all that and nobody said that stuff even then other than writers in computer magazines. Nope, instead I’m going to tell you that it’s bloody brilliant. It’s still, in 2021, along with Sensible Soccer, one of the best sports games you’ll ever find, fantastic on your own and of course brilliant with your mates (provided the skill gap isn’t too big). Once the pandemic is done, go get your mates, gather them around an ST or Amiga (or emulator or FPGA replication of either) and have some fun. They don’t make them like this anymore (modern attempts at capturing the magic simply fail).

Resources

Manual: http://www.c64sets.com/set.html?id=109

Amiga vs ST

Some kind soul took the time to do a proper comparison so you can see how the visuals and sound differ. Enjoy.

ST Format Issue 18 (Dec 90)

ST Format Issue 18 – Download

The World in December 1990
The UK had a remarkable event as workers from the English and French sides of the Channel Tunnel met for the first time, a project which had run way over budget and way over time, but has since proven to be pretty useful. The first British hostages were released by Saddam Hussein. Poundland opened its first shop (honestly I had no idea it was that old). Tony Adams (Arsenal central defender) was sentenced to 4 months in prison for drink driving. The last coalmine was closed in South Wales.

The US news unemployment hit 6.3%, and the Space Shuttle Columbia had a short mission that really didn’t go brilliantly. Otherwise not much going on in America it seems.

Elsewhere in the world Helmut Kohl won the first federal election since German reunification. Slobodan Milosovic was elected as president of Serbia. This would not go well. In Albania the communists announced free elections with other parties allowed to stand, signalling the end of communism there. Slovenia voted for independence. All in all, a bad time for communism continued, but also seeds were sewn for future conflicts and atrocities.

On TV Britain got its first foreign language channel – it was Greek, surprisingly. Channel 4 premiered Wallace & Gromit’s A Grand Day Out. Otherwise not much to write home about – December is traditionally a quiet month.

The film charts saw Teenage Mutant Ninja (Hero in the UK) Turtles at #1, but it would soon be replaced by Home Alone. The chart is absolutely dreadful.


The album chart is entirely populated by greatest hits collections, reflecting people buying shit albums for their parents. Christmas is a dark time for albums.

The singles chart is a mixed bag. Vanilla Ice tops the chart with Ice Ice Baby, Cliff ‘Not a pedo’ Richard is at #2 with some absolute drek, and Madonna is at #3 with one of her weakest singles, one that signals her trying-too-hard-to-be-shocking phase which would be a feature of her early-90s output. Weirdly The Righteous Brothers have two songs in the top 10 (and it wasn’t a common occurrence in those days) while Emmerdale (British soap opera) star Malandra Burrows had a terrible song in at #11. On a more positive note there’s the excellent All Together Now by The Farm and Unbelievable by EMF. There’s also Wicked Game by Chris Isaak at #12 which peaked a week earlier at #10, far below where it deserves to be.

The Magazine

Issue 18 proclaims itself the biggest ever issue, and weighing in at 220 pages it is indeed the biggest ever issue of ST Format. No bigger issue would be produced as by next Christmas the ST would be in a slightly less healthy state giving us 180 pages and another year later while weighing in at 140 pages the machine is clearly heading for its grave. Still, the cover is having none of that, proclaiming the reasons to be cheerful including how Atari are going to transform your ST. This refers to a news story about the forthcoming Mega STE – a machine with a 68000 processor running at 16MHz vs the usual 8, 2/4MB RAM, but otherwise the same as an STE. Borrowing the form-factor of the Mega ST and intended as its replacment. Probably the biggest feature is actually TOS 2.0 promising keyboard shortcuts for menu items, a new control panel, select all in the file selector, cursor-key window scrolling, and the ability to change the background colour. Unfortunately the new machine is pretty expensive, and in truth it does little to address the weaknesses of the ST against the Amiga – it’s a perfectly fine DTP machine but not much more, and the failure to address the ST’s weaknesses vs the Amiga graphically make even that point questionable.

Another announcement from Atari concerns an STE variant of the Stacy laptop. Atari claimed battery life of 35 hours, which seems unlikely with the technology of the era. In really exciting news, we have the first mention I’ve seen in ST Format of an optical mouse. £39.95 gets you a wired optical mouse from Golden Image.

There’s a bit of evisceration of Atari, with an article titled “Atari: back on the right tracks?” which highlights the many screw-ups from Atari in 1990 (in hindsight the big screw-up, the STE, was what killed them by preventing the ST line from having a longer lifespan and failing to provide the platform for a more impressive Falcon down the line). Worse however is the open letter to Atari addressing a number of issues including the botched STE launch and Atari’s tendency to simply deny problems exist, which was proven correct by a petulant response from Bob Gleadow of Atari. In many ways these letters place the problems at the heart of Atari’s management in full public glare and offer remarkable insight into precisely why Atari failed. I highly recommend either downloading issue 18 to have a look, or finding the specific pages at the ST Format Shrine’s page for this issue.

This is a double-disk issue, with the demo disk containing a level from the excellent Golden Axe and the less excellent Puzznic, while the 2nd disk is a full game, but sadly it’s the utterly terrible Interphase. Believe me when I say Interphase is not a good game. Technically it’s not bad, with reasonably smooth 3D graphics, but that’s achieved by being so abstract as to render that smoothness worthless. In the end it’s just a 3D shooter. While we’re on cover disks, ST Format gloat a bit about ST User’s cover disk virus as well as the death of Stampede. Frankly not ST Format’s finest hour.

We get a top 10 for 5 categories of game of which I’d say 3 no longer get the attention they once did. Shooters, platformers, sims, adventures and puzzles. The shooters are headed by Xenon 2 with Turrican in at 5 plus some odd choices at other positions. Platformers do better with Rainbow Islands and Rick 2 fairly solid choices for the top 2 spots, though Flood at #3 seems an odd choice until you see the poor quality of the rest of the list. Sims do well, the top 3 of F-19, Kick Off 2 and Sim City being 3 of my all-time favourite games, and the rest are solid enough. The adventure list has Operation Stealth correctly at #1, and a scattering of decent games beyond that. Puzzles places Pipe Mania in a mere #4 while the likes of Klax and E-Motion sit undeservedly above it. Two of the best games of the preceding 12 months (Damocles and Midwinter) fail to get a mention, though perhaps this is because it’s hard to find a category for them.

Previews

We have an interesting mix of previews this month. There’s Welltris attempting to bring Tetris into 3D – something nobody really got right until the recent VR take on the concept. More interesting is Domark’s Mig 29, I’m hoping that’ll turn out to be the first non-Microprose modern sim to hook its claws into me. Continuing the 3D theme we have a promise of some Damocles mission disks (we only got 1 – it’s possible that the second became Mercenary 3) while ARC (Atari’s own label) had Cyber Assault though this would prove to be vapourware. On a more arcadey note there’s Rod-Land, which turned out to be a decent conversion of a fairly typical cutesy arcade platformer, and for those craving something a little more macho we have previews for SWIV and Z-Out (shooters) and Turrican 2.

We get a fairly extended piece on plans to run with the success of Sim City with architecture disks and Sim Earth (the latter was hugely ambitious but ultimately a terrible game). In many ways Sim Earth was a precursor to the likes of Spore (no coincidence that both came from Maxis). Sim City 2 is teased but the description sounds a lot like Sim City 2000 which never made it to the ST owing to being a bit too big and ambitious.

There’s an interesting article on the Bitmap Brothers going independent to form Renegade – it’s somewhat uncritical as tends to be the case when ST Format are talking about the Bitmaps, Bullfrog, etc. Still, it’s worth a read and you get a little bit about Magic Pockets and Gods with the latter getting some screenshots. Interesting to see their love of Paradroid 90 and clearly they like the hacking sequence a lot more than I do.

Of most interest to me is the chunky preview given for the masterpiece Midwinter 2 (aka Flames Of Freedom). Visually it looks like a lot is already there at this point, the art is a huge upgrade from the first game, though apparently it was still pretty buggy at this point. It’s interesting then that when I played it back in the day I don’t remember encountering any significant bugs.

The public domain section is much of a muchness but does feature one fairly interesting demo from Radical Systemz. No doubt it’s pretty, and the reviewer is pretty excited by it, but I think he may miss how it’s easier to do something like this than it is to make a full game.

Other reviews of note include NeoDesk 3, showing Atari what a desktop environment could look like. Remarkable features like not having a puke-green background, customisable icons, a faster disk formatter, being able to keep items selected while you scroll the window, keyboard shortcuts, all fairly revolutionary stuff. Atari really rested on their laurels on the software side of things, in a way it’s a shame hard disks weren’t more popular on the ST as we’d have seen Neodesk have more success, and maybe that might have pushed Atari to get their act together.

ST Game Charts

F-19 continues to dominate, with Kick Off 2 close behind. Shadow Of The Beast makes its appearance at #3, a victory for graphics over gameplay. Good to see some quality in there with Cadaver a new entry at 5 and the brilliant Operation Stealth at #6. Turrican only gets in at #15, while Midwinter is still hanging in there at #19. In the budget charts, a lot of kids are going to be cursing santa for getting them Codemaster’s turd Italia 90. What on earth is wrong with people?

Reviews

Games reviewed this month:
Supremacy (Strategy – Melbourne House – £29.99 – 90% Format Gold)
Lost Patrol (Very pretty Vietnam war game – Ocean – £24.99 – 88%)
Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (Outrun-style racer – Gremlin – £19.99 -86%)
Puzznic (Puzzle – Ocean – £24.99 – 86%)
ATF 2 (Arcade flight sim shooter – Digital Integration – £24.99 – 74%)
Ultimate Ride (3D Motorbike Racer – Mindscape – £24.99 – 67%)
9 Lives (Insanely pretty flip-screen platformer – Arc – £24.99 – 74%)
Brain Blasters (Puzzle – Ubisoft – £19.99 – 88%)
Speedball 2 (If you don’t know this game you shouldn’t be here – Mirrorsoft – £24.99 – 88%) – Criminally underrated
Golden Axe (Side-scrolling arcade slasher – Virgin – £24.99 – 82%)
Toyota Celica GT Rally (3D Rallying – Gremlin – £24.99 – 79%)
The Curse Of Ra (Puzzler – Rainbow Arts – £19.99 – 83%)
Car-Vup (Car-themed cutesy platformer – Core Design – £19.99 – 79%)
Gremlins 2 (Side-scrolling movie tie-in – Elite – £19.99 – 70%)
Badlands (Top-down-ish racer – Domark – £24.99 – 72%)
Alpha Waves (Pretentious 3D Twaddle – Infogrames – £24.99 – 83%)
Murders In Space (Point and click adventure crime solver – Infogrames – £24.99 – 83%)
Narco Police (Into-the-screen shooter – Dinamic – £24.99 – 46%)
Chip’s Challenge (Puzzler – US Gold – £19.99 – 82%)
Pang (Arcade bubble-splatter – Ocean – £24.99 – 88%)
Chess Simulator (Beat em up – Infogrames – £24.99 – 62%)
The Final Battle (Adventure – PSS – £24.99 – 52%)
Corporation (SLOOOOOOW filled-vector FPS – Core Design – £24.99 – 87%)
Chase HQ 2 (Arcade racer with weapons – Ocean – £24.99 – 78%)
Street Hockey (3d hockey – Gonzo Games – £24.99 – 64%)
USS John Young (3D naval battle sim with terrible graphics – Magic Bytes – £24.99 – 34%)
Nitro (Top-down racer – Psygnosis – £19.99 – 41%)
Omnicron Conspiracy (Adventure/Whodunnit – Mirrorsoft – £24.99 – 42%)
Vector Championship Run (3D Racer – Impulze – £24.99 – 40%)
Shadow Warriors (Beat Em Up – Ocean – £24.95 – 58%)
Helter Skelter (Terrible platformer – Audiogenic – £19.99 – 75%)
Mig 29 Soviet Fighter (Awful Afterburner clone – Codemasters – £6.99 – 30%)
Defender 2 (Jeff Minter defender clone collection – Arc – £19.99 – 88%)
Conflict (Strategy – Mastertronic – £4.99 – 60%)
A bunch of Infocom text adventures at £9.99 each – 75-89% with Hitchhiker’s Guide the highlight

So again there’s a fair number of games there which interest me. Supremacy is one I always wanted to have a crack at but I suspect will take a good bit of time to figure out and may be difficult to fit into a 3/4 day cadence between reviews. Similar could be said of Lost Patrol – a game with screenshots I’m sure we all drooled over back in the day. The scanned photos promised naive young minds a rather more graphical experience though as an old man knowing more of the capabilities of the machine I suspect they were merely stills for atmosphere.

Speedball 2 is a given – any excuse to play that is fine by me. I plan to have a crack at both the Gremlin racers – I never played Lotus 1 but it has an excellent reputation, but Toyota Celica GT Rally interests me more. It’s a game I had a blast with as a kid and for me is a vital part of my racing game history. Continuing the racing theme I’m curious to see if Badlands and Nitro are any good – ST Format didn’t generally like those kinds of top-down racers so it’ll be interesting to see if they’re actually any good and whether there’s enough meat on the bones to get an article out of them. I might even have a crack at Chase HQ 2 to see if that’s any better than the first.

9 Lives is one I wanted as a kid but never managed to acquire so I’ll be giving that a shot. Continuing the arcade theme I’d like to have a crack at Pang and Golden Axe – the latter I’ll probably do some comparisons with other ports. Car-vup might also be worth a look. For more serioius stuff I’m tempted by Murders In Space and Omnicron Conspiracy though I’ll need to spend some time with those to see if they control sanely and offer enough to get an article out of them.

For those playing along at home, I’ll be sourcing pirated releases from the TOSEC collection on archive.org. Here’s a list of releases, likely you’ll also find decent releases at AtariMania, for the games I might cover.

  • Speedball 2 – Automation 400, Fuzion 30, SuperGAU 374/541, Vectronix 593/785
  • Lotus 1 – Automation 383A, Fuzion 20, Medway Boys 98, Pompey Pirates 60, Vectronix 219/904
  • Toyota Celica GT Rally – Automation 419, Fuzion 39, Vectronix 703
  • Nitro – Automation 377, Flame Of Finland 45, Pompey Pirates 61, SuperGAU 476/809, Vectronix 192/342/814
  • Badlands – Automation 392, Flame Of Finland 48, Medway Boys 102, Pompey Pirates 69, Vectronix 417/667
  • Chase HQ 2 – Automation 473, Pompey Pirates 66, Vectronix 518
  • Pang – Automation 427B, Flame Of Finland 48, Pompey Pirates 65, SuperGAU 473/805, Vectonix 35/112/801
  • Golden Axe – Automation 399, Fuzion 23, Pompey Pirates 64, SuperGAU 402, Vectronix 281/828
  • 9 Lives – Automation 376, Fuzion 57
  • Car vup – Automation 419, Fuzion 38, Pompey Pirates 70, SuperGAU 385
  • Murders In Space – Automation 383A/B, Vectronix 818/9
  • Omnicron Conspiracy – Automation 461
  • Lost Patrol – Vectronix 369-371
  • Supremacy – Automation 425A/B
  • ATF 2 – Automation 390, Flame Of Finland 44, Fuzion 22, Medway Boys 101, Pompey Pirates 61, SuperGAU 460/812

December 1990

The World in December 1990
The UK had a remarkable event as workers from the English and French sides of the Channel Tunnel met for the first time, a project which had run way over budget and way over time, but has since proven to be pretty useful. The first British hostages were released by Saddam Hussein. Poundland opened its first shop (honestly I had no idea it was that old). Tony Adams (Arsenal central defender) was sentenced to 4 months in prison for drink driving. The last coalmine was closed in South Wales.

The US news unemployment hit 6.3%, and the Space Shuttle Columbia had a short mission that really didn’t go brilliantly. Otherwise not much going on in America it seems.

Elsewhere in the world Helmut Kohl won the first federal election since German reunification. Slobodan Milosovic was elected as president of Serbia. This would not go well. In Albania the communists announced free elections with other parties allowed to stand, signalling the end of communism there. Slovenia voted for independence. All in all, a bad time for communism continued, but also seeds were sewn for future conflicts and atrocities.

On TV Britain got its first foreign language channel – it was Greek, surprisingly. Channel 4 premiered Wallace & Gromit’s A Grand Day Out. Otherwise not much to write home about – December is traditionally a quiet month.

The film charts saw Teenage Mutant Ninja (Hero in the UK) Turtles at #1, but it would soon be replaced by Home Alone. The chart is absolutely dreadful.


The album chart is entirely populated by greatest hits collections, reflecting people buying shit albums for their parents. Christmas is a dark time for albums.

The singles chart is a mixed bag. Vanilla Ice tops the chart with Ice Ice Baby, Cliff ‘Not a pedo’ Richard is at #2 with some absolute drek, and Madonna is at #3 with one of her weakest singles, one that signals her trying-too-hard-to-be-shocking phase which would be a feature of her early-90s output. Weirdly The Righteous Brothers have two songs in the top 10 (and it wasn’t a common occurrence in those days) while Emmerdale (British soap opera) star Malandra Burrows had a terrible song in at #11. On a more positive note there’s the excellent All Together Now by The Farm and Unbelievable by EMF. There’s also Wicked Game by Chris Isaak at #12 which peaked a week earlier at #10, far below where it deserves to be.

This Month’s Magazines

ST Format Issue 18

Why Do We Play Retro Games? Aka What Went Wrong With Modern Games?

I thought it might be nice to do something a little deeper than just reviews and the historical context pieces around each magazine’s release, as fun as they are. So today I’m writing an article. I wanted to ask the big question – why do we play retro games? May as well start with the biggest question and then dive into smaller things afterwards. The answer takes in multiple strands so please forgive me for a long piece with many branching narratives which will take a fair bit of work to tie together at the end.

Now I’ll start by stating the obvious. Nostalgia is a factor. I can’t deny the warm fuzzy feeling I get when I fire up Nebulus and watch that little green frog walking around that rotating tower. Nor can I disguise my delight at seeing an Atari ST or Amiga in the wild, the childhood memories triggered by sights and sounds that take me to a simpler time. We all enjoy that feeling, and most of us who enjoy retro are of a certain age. And yet, that isn’t entirely it. In the course of working through ST Format issues I’ve enjoyed playing some wonderful games I never got to play as a kid, some I’d never even heard of. This mirrors my enjoyment of older films – I’ve been watching movies from the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s and I can assure you that I’m not that old, even if I do sometimes feel it. These are movies I’ve never seen before and yet I’ve been watching them over the last couple of years and found tremendous pleasure in them. The 80s movies give me the nostalgia, no doubt, but where is this love for older films coming from? To me there are periods of cinematic greatness, the 70s for instance were full of amazing directors and actors in their absolute prime, while the 30s-50s see the likes of Alfred Hitchcock working absolute miracles. Shorn of the ability to create spectacular visuals through the use of CGI, without modern camera technology, these directors created wonderful character-driven stories that focused on universal human fears and desires. I have to wonder then, could the same be said of games, with the older creations coming from masters at the peak of their powers having their creativity boosted by the limitations of their tools?

To truly understand why people play retro games, we need to figure out what retro games give us that their modern counterparts don’t, outside of the warm fuzzy nostalgic feeling. We need to focus on the things they get right, and one of the biggest is readability and accessibility. This may sound odd when one considers that we talk of retro games as being brutally difficult, and some definitely were, but those mostly 2D spaces were far easier to navigate than modern games with their cluttered 3D spaces. Every object exists to be interacted with and its shape and appearance is usually simple enough to make its purpose clear, and further it is not surrounded by irrelevant clutter. This makes it a far more rapid process for the brain to scan what it sees and know what to do, with less cognitive overload. In many ways this is one of the things that Nintendo gets right with its modern designs – it has kept that readability of the classic games while still being incredibly pretty, though to do that it has had to choose a path which leads some to criticise their designs as being for children, not being gritty and realistic enough. That, at heart, comes down to two diametrically-opposed ideals of what a game is meant to be.

Those of us who play retro games are more often focused on the core gameplay loop, the mechanics of the game, with the atmosphere evoked by the game’s graphics and sound a secondary (though still valid) consideration. Don’t get me wrong, there’s much a game can do with sound and vision to give it charm, to lend it atmosphere, to reinforce your actions. Speedball 2 on the Amiga is fantastic because of the crowd sounds during the match, the Ice Cream, the bone-crunching tackles, and the visuals convey that clean metalic world beautifully. Mega Lo Mania’s wonderful speech samples lend it enormous charm, just as those of Stronghold do, and both have wonderfully identifiable buildings and units (which isn’t often true of modern RTS games). Damocles desolate vistas create a wonderful sense of loneliness. Llamatron’s psychadelic visuals and old-school-arcade sound effects create a frenetic flow, a kinetic energy that drives you on. All of these are valid. But all of these are readable, and all of these are mechanically sound. The movement, crunchy impacts, lag-free controls and carefully-crafted AI that’s just the right level of smart-stupid makes Speedball 2 perfect. The simplicity of the rules underpinning Mega Lo Mania, a turn-based game disguised as real-time, make it easy to process what’s going on and to assess your resources to plan for battle. Damocles is beautifully crafted feeding you the bread crumb trail to take you through a story packed with charming British wit. Llamatron throws huge waves of enemies at you but equips you with unlimited ammo and amazing power-ups.

Considering modern games for a moment, Witcher 3 is a wonderful experience with some gorgeous visuals and incredible writing, but most would agree the combat is weak, and as beautiful as it was, its reliance on witcher senses left you often simply following a red trail rather than actually following clues in the environment because it simply isn’t that easy to parse. Consider the Tomb Raider games which suffer from many of the same problems, relying on some walls being magically climbable and some not, with a magic sense telling you which is which. Then consider games like Life Is Strange, the first was undoubtedly a fun extension of the Telltale formula but in truth the gameplay mechanics were somewhat lacking, and while improving on Telltale is itself noble, the path of Telltale from actual adventures to interactive movies highlights some of what went wrong with games.

As graphical fidelity improved, so game developers started to make movies instead of games, with gameplay beginning to be seen as an obstacle to getting to the story. The importance of what were ultimately fairly sophomoric stories became vastly inflated in the eyes of developers but also with a journalist class who had begun to have ambitions away from gaming, but that’s something we’ll come back to later. Among even more gameplay-focused titles, there were unhealthy shifts in trends towards gacha gameplay. For those unfamiliar, gacha games are specifically built around monetising players by making them spend in-game currency to overcome deliberately poor game design elements like difficulty spikes. This trend started in mobile largely due to users being unwilling to buy games for a price that reflects the effort being put into creation, necessitating microtransactions as a means to generate the revenue to stay in business, but then extended with greed. Companies got better and better at parting gamers with their cash and slowly ported those practices over into PC and console gaming, though initially there was pushback on this (we all remember Horse Armour right?).

And this is where we must bring journalists into this discussion. Their job is ultimately to inform the consumer, and to advocate on their behalf. While there has always been the odd bit of shadiness, a high review score to stop a publisher pulling adverts, a game made by an ex staff member getting a higher score (looking at you ST Format and Magic Fly), and I’m sure we can all think of plenty of others. Then there’s the tendency of ‘official’ magazines for particular platforms giving inflated scores back in the day – indeed Nintendo Life still get accused of that kind of thing with first party Nintendo contend despite not being official. Games journalism was certainly never perfect, and yet it was a lot better than it is. In the 80s and 90s, gaming was not seen as a particularly cool nor anything worth pursuing as a career path. The typical image of gamers was perhaps best reflected in Bad Influence’s character Nam Rood who would answer viewers questions about games they were stuck on, a bit like Patrick Moore did on Gamesmaster.

Because it wasn’t cool, and because you weren’t going to get rich doing it, and because it wasn’t going to open any doors to ‘serious’ journalism, the gaming press mostly consisted of people who were passionate about games. They could play games all day, write about them, and get paid. What’s not to like? And for a long time it remained that way, perhaps best exemplified by the likes of Zero, Amiga Power and PC Zone, where it was clearly a bunch of mates having a lot of fun playing games. Much of why those old magazines are enjoyable to go back to is that sense of community, that bond formed among people who were never mainstream. Eventually magazines started to struggle, with one of the last holdouts dying in 2010, as the world moved to online blogs like Rock Paper Shotgun. And in the early days RPS did a brilliant job, with clever writing and consumer advocacy, tackling big business (and it was starting to become that with EA being a behemoth that chews up studios and spits them out) and bad practices. And then somewhere in the last 10 years it started to go wrong (and I’m going to ask for a bit of patience as I lay this out as it might not be immediately obvious why it matters – trust me I’ll get there but the background is important).

I’d struggle to pick out an exact moment when it started, but I slowly became aware that reviews were no longer being written for me, the gamer. I noticed they stopped pushing back on corporations fleecing the consumer, and this created space for games to become microtransaction-infested hellscapes. EA were particularly egregious in that regard. I noticed they stopped championing amazing new indie games with incredible gameplay and instead on games about being at a urinal and trying to look at someone else’s dick but it’s not a dick, it’s a gun. I saw more listicles. I noticed the things the writers were pushing back on were no longer consumer matters or concerns for the whole gaming community but instead matters of interest to small sub-groups, indeed the sub-groups seemed to get more and more niche over time. I started noticing that writers were actively hostile to anyone who didn’t agree with their takes on these issues. I started to notice some of these writers start writing in the Guardian – in truth that was the dream they were all chasing. Games journalism had ceased to be a medium for writing about games and had instead become a medium to audition for The Guardian or the New Statesman.

Now it’s fine to write as an audition for elsewhere, up to a point, after all people have ambitions and need to make a living, but there must be a balance. That auditioning can push for excellence, but given the narrow focus on a small subset of newspapers and TV with a very similar set of opinions, it instead started to become increasingly a push for a particular agenda. Games would be praised for having a gay main character, even if that had no effect on the game or the story. Games would be more likely to get attention if they had a ‘capitalism is bad’ message. If your character was trans you had a guaranteed puff piece. On the negative side, so many articles were now about focusing on how a game is ‘problematic’ in some way. Be it Kingdom Come Deliverance not having enough black people in Europe in the middle ages, or Cyberpunk not having enough pronoun options (one Eurogamer article spent the first third of the interview badgering a developer about pronouns), it became increasingly clear that these people were not writing about games for the love of games, but instead to ensure conformity of opinion. Indeed the focus is now on seeking out ever smaller and more ridiculous things to be offended by as the Twittersphere will love it and the right will rage-click it, leaving the sane in the middle wondering what the hell is going on and what happened to their games.

So how did this come about? Many have argued that the internet was the death of journalism, with readers becoming accustomed to free content funded by advertising killing off magazines and declining ad revenues driving sites towards a clickbait-led model. There is truth in this, and much of what is written now extends that clickbait concept by being deliberate rage-bait. However, it’s not the internet specifically. It’s Twitter. The thing with Twitter is that while you have your trolls spewing racist bile and all the usual online toxicity common to any barely-moderated anonymous environment, they don’t tend to get much traction as a group. It’s just individuals picking at people, often in very nasty ways, but still not any kind of movement. They don’t get traction, they don’t generally get followers, they just spew bile into the ether and are mostly ignored. On the other hand, the people who do have influence on Twitter (and this has become even more true since the purge of late 2020/early 2021) are mostly of a singular political stripe, one equally capable of bile and racism, just against more ‘acceptable’ targets. This creates an economy of influence where to build an audience you have to mirror those views, and if you want to get a lot of hits for your article you’ll need a Twitter following (and this becomes especially important as many ‘writers’ are now freelancing in many different publications on precarious pay). What this leads to is writers writing not for you, but for the influencers of Twitter, hoping to get noticed. Just as comedians have shifted from trying to get laughs to looking for applause, so writers have shifted from writing for the gamer community to writing for a political activist community. This is why instead of asking EA why they persist with exploitative lootboxes they write articles about Cyberpunk getting trans representation wrong (remember this is a tiny group, less than 1% of the population – it makes no commercial sense to focus on them but it is hugely important to the Twitter community). This leaves gamers without a voice, no big player fighting for them, which is a problem in itself but it also impacts on how games are made.

Let’s start with a big studio releasing a new hero shooter (the ones with wacky characters with special powers). You know you can cram it with microtransactions and the only complaints will be a few gamers on Twitter but they’ll be ignored if you throw a label of toxicity at them (people tend to get a little grouchy when nobody’s listening – a riot is the voice of the unheard – makes it easier to then define them as toxic). It won’t affect your all-important Metacritic score, which means your bonus will be safe (and bonuses are dependent upon Metacritic scores at far too many publishers). Next up you want to appease the journalists, so you announce that one of the characters is bi, and you might make one a bit chubby for fat acceptance, maybe have one of them be trans just to be sure. That’ll bump your metacritic score up at least 5 percent for far less work than would be required to create unique gameplay or to perfect the controls and balance, things these writers just don’t care about.

Moving on to indie – remember how many wonderful games came from the indie scene in the early 2010s? Some had a narrative focus but even if they did they also came with sharp gameplay. Think World Of Goo, Braid, Super Meat Boy, Osmos, VVVVVV, And Yet It Moves, Crayon Physics Deluxe, Revenge Of The Titans, Legends Of Grimrock, Binding Of Isaac, Gunpoint, Thomas Was Alone, Hotline Miami, Prison Architect. All of these were beautiful games with fantastic gameplay loops, and then we switched to drudgery like Papers Please where you stamp immigration papers and Not Tonight set in a dystopian post-Brexit Britain. There’s a clear shift in tone around the indie scene, and part of it is that, just as journalists must keep the influencers happy, so indie game developers living on meagre incomes simply won’t get anywhere unless they tow the party line.

The problem with this is that it makes the games absolutely insufferable for anyone who doesn’t live in the Twittersphere. If you voted leave (and us oldies are more likely to have done so) it’s a bit of a turn off to have games and the gaming press bash you over the head telling you that you’re a nazi. I just want to play good games and want the best for all people, rather than focusing on small subgroups. And I’m not alone. Making games overtly political isn’t necessarily a problem if done well, but as discussed earlier, storytelling in gaming is pretty sophomoric, especially when there’s such a limited range of permissible opinion as to render everything a trope – certain groups can’t be portrayed negatively, certain groups must always be portrayed negatively, and honestly it’s all so bloody exhausting. The majority of writers in gaming simply cannot offer deep political insight, and one of the few that could, Chris Avellone of the magnificent KOTOR 2 has been driven out of the industry by cancel culture (because anyone with any talent is).

So to tie it together, the Twitter-driven journalists who don’t really want to write about games but would rather write for the Guardian have created an incentive structure which penalises any game sitting outside of their narrow skewed overton window (see the mass-silence on Kingdom Come Deliverance) and has led to gameplay coming second to half-formed narrative while corporate malfeasance is handwaved away provided they pay the identity tax. It’s no wonder modern games are so dull.

So why do we play old games? Because we want games made by people who love games, from a time when journalists held their feet to the fire to make great gameplay, and when corporations were kept in line and discouraged from engaging in anti-consumer practices. Because those simpler games focused better on gameplay. Because when there was a story it would engage you on deeper and more universal matters of human interest (see Westwood’s Bladerunner) instead of the concerns of a tiny group who are being used for political pointscoring. It was a simpler and better time, not without its faults, but better than where we are today.