Review: Paradroid ’90 (Atari ST)

ST Format Review (issue 17)

My Review

Equipment

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62
  • Automation Menu Disk 390 / Medway Boys 91
  • Speedlink USB Joystick

In 1985 Hewson (of Nebulus fame – one of my all-time favourites) released Paradroid on the Commodore 64 to massive acclaim. It was remarkable at the time in taking the shooter formula and adding to it a layer of strategy with the player swapping into different enemy ships by hacking them, and is still highly regarded to this day, voted the best game ever on the C64 by Retro Gamer. Paradroid 90 was the 16-bit release, which appeared on the Atari ST and the Amiga in 1990. Five years after the original, it didn’t quite attract the same level of acclaim as games had grown significantly in complexity and gamers had different expectations – it scored a solid but not spectacular 78% in ST format where the writer observes that while it might have been fine 5 years ago (1985) it doesn’t match up to modern classics like Xenon 2. Some of this reflects the tendency of ST Format to value slick graphics over gameplay – they felt unable to rate Pipemania highly for instance because graphically it wasn’t special, but it’s a game which held up brilliantly and still has a following today. ST Format cannot be blamed for not knowing which games would hold up decades later of course, the magazine is a product of its time and we were all obsessed with the latest new shiny graphics, just as kids today are with the Playstation 5 vs the Xbox. Of course back then there was a bit more of a jump between generations (which is part of why Paradroid gets a relative kicking of course).

The gimmick that makes Paradroid 90 is that instead of a more traditional upgrade system of picking up powerups, it instead allows you to take control of different enemies. This is done by switching into zapper mode (holding down fire while not moving) and bumping into an enemy. This then triggers a minigame. The problem is that I couldn’t find any damn useful guide anywhere on how the thing worked. The manual (or what I could find of it) really didn’t do a great job of explaining anything – this was not helped by the only scan available being in French and the only English available being a text transcription which misses the images to help establish what they’re talking about. Thankfully some very kind people at Amiga Addict Discord saved me from being the dumbass who couldn’t do the Cuphead tutorial (though to be honest I really suck at that game).

I spent some time trying out the Amiga and C64 versions of the game to get a bit of a feel for the evolution from C64 and also to see what the differences between ST and Amiga versions were – one must do proper research after all. First up, the opening music on the Amiga version is far more brooding, which is admittedly an easier feel to achieve with samples than a beeping Atari ST, while the ST’s music sounds quite cheery. Once into the game it’s just sound-effects, no music, and the ST version is actually a pretty good effort, with the chip being used well to create some unusual sounds – the sounds and music are different but for me each has merit. I’d say that there’s not too much in it between Amiga and ST in terms of smoothness, certainly nothing intolerable, this is probably helped by scrolling being vertical which was always where the ST was happier.

Going to the C64 version for a moment, the chunky visuals of the C64 make for a more readable environment for me – the 16-bit edition’s first level in particular can be a bit of a red mush on the first level, though this improves on the second (thank you Youtube). The hacking minigame also benefits from a more readable visual, with greater clarity brought to a fairly abstract puzzle. Additionally, the game offers a lot more information through text in the C64 version, with information about the nature of the hack. Returning to the shooting bits – the number read-outs on the droids seem to relate to their power, and the game does seem to accept abstraction more, while the 16-bit versions don’t present the player with that same level of information.

Coming back to wider gameplay, the aim of the game, as with most shooters, is to blow stuff up. Your goal is to clear out all the androids who have apparently gone a little mad. In-game there’s not much evidence of this though – most of them just wandering the halls minding their own business until I shoot them right in their shiny metal faces. Am I the monster? Is this a fever dream where I’m murdering innocents? It’s an unusual setup that differs substantially from the majority of shooters out at the time in that the opposition are far less directly antagonistic, and tend to be in ones and twos rather than any kind of waves. It’s a more sedate shooter. That said, it is also brutally difficult. You don’t have lives. If you haven’t stolen a robot, if you get blown up, that’s it. If you have stolen one, blowing you up sees you out on your own and in that vulnerable state. Effectively you have one life but can get a second by hijacking a robot, but can never have more than that. An added hindrance is that you have an element of line-of-sight visibility to enemies – they disappear when they go into another room, only to reappear when you enter.

The gameplay loop itself is solid enough, though the shooting feels lacking in punch. The minigame is a welcome attempt at something new (or at least it was in 1985) and even in 1990 this is a game that stands out from the rest of the shooters, as for whatever reason it doesn’t seem that many games iterated on what Paradroid did (which I presume is why they saw a gap in the market). The shooter half of the game in some ways bears a closer resemblance to modern FPSs than the shooters of its era – that probably sounds a little bit mad but you don’t tend to find waves of enemies coming at you these days outside of the likes of Doom and Serious Sam – it’s more about picking off lone enemies or a couple of enemies in many cases.

The Verdict

All this is a lot more than I’d usually have to say about a shooter, and that’s in part because it’s an important shooter and in part because it does a few things differently. The idea is sound, but I can’t say I’m 100% convinced that the additions make this a better game. To me it’s not clear that hijacking ships is better than upgrade pods. The minigame is a nice idea but it feels a tad random, but it’s clearly an integral part of the balancing of the game – to get some screenshots of the second ship I used a cheat and one of the options was disabling the minigame – the problem is that this makes it very easy to just take over any ship you like and removes much of the challenge. The fact that this was hidden behind only a single keypress rather than a cheat code suggests that perhaps the developers knew the difficulty wasn’t quite balanced right.

Add in the readability issues where I would rather play the C64 version and it becomes tricky to recommend Paradroid 90 – it’s a shame as there’s a good idea in here just let down by issues with execution both in the hacking minigame and the readability of the levels.

Resources

Manual: https://www.lemonamiga.com/games/docs.php?id=1194

Here’s a video of someone who knows what they’re doing…


The C64 version:

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