Review: Starglider 2

Starglider 2

When I first got my Atari ST, it came with Starglider 1, which had the absolutely fantastic theme music when it loaded (see video below), and an absolutely gorgeous bit of art on the loading screen.

The game however was a bit of a disappointment, wireframe graphics just didn’t do it for me. Enter Starglider 2, correcting that issue. Loading Starglider 2 we get the loading screen which is somewhat less fun than Starglider 1, and lacks music – such a shame when the Amiga got this:

Of course the Atari ST’s problems with audio are well-documented, it struggled with samples, but it can do them, as evidenced by Starglider 1, Xenon 2, Speedball 2, Mega Lo Mania, etc all of which used samples in wonderfully creative ways. Maybe the issue was one of RAM or disk space.

On loading, the game dumps you into an abstract 3D world where the floor is chequered to give the illusion of movement and I guess there are buildings on the ground though it’s hard to identify them as such. I managed to get into space and shoot some pirates which was reasonable fun but it became abundantly clear that I was missing something – after all there had to be more to the hype than just a space shooter. I had another look at the ST Format review (this is from the days when the gaming press was made up of enthusiasts who could actually bring you useful information) confirmed this – it seems I needed to get 15 parts of a bomb to blow up the bad guy, as well as finding underground arms depots to get the weapons needed to destroy ground targets, which seemed to involve tunnels. It seems I needed to do a bit more research – my modern gaming ways of expecting arrows and in-world exposition perhaps failing me. Looking further, at a walkthrough (don’t hate me – just wanted to get some pointers on where to start) it seems there is an expectation that I read the novella as that gives some indication of what to do. Right.. back in a couple of weeks.

[reads ‘novella’ with clear attempted imitation of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams – to be fair it’s not as bad as I was expecting and raised a few chuckles – some lines like “The dignity of the stranger’s bearing was eclipsed by the twin companions of defeat and despair mirrored in his large, brown eyes” – who writes that shit? – so the naughty Egrons want to build a beam in the Solice system using a magnetic planet with some moons forming some kind of defence… ]

Things I learned from the novella:

Planets: We’ve got Dante (think Mercury), Vista (think Venus), Apogee (admin centre – think Earth) with two moons Enos and Castron, then an asteroid belt, then Millway the big gas giant with seven moons, and finally Aldos with it’s magnetic moon Q-Beta – the magnet which would drive the beam that would blow up Noveria.

Looks like they’re building defences on each of the 7 Millway moons so I’ll need to take those out.
Landing on Apogee I need to find underground depots to pick up supplies for my barely-armed ship. Only Apogee will have the technical ability to build the big weapon needed to take out the big bad.
Go to the inner worlds first, keep the hell away from Millway and Q-Beta for now, seems like a sensible plan.
I need minerals from Dante, nodules are apparently lying on the surface. That’ll get me lasers. Cool.
Castron supplies food, and they need wood from Enos.
Refuelling is done by breaking up asteroids, or by using the towers on Castron’s surface, or hovering over Dante’s volcanoes.
We need to capture a professor on Broadway, one of Millway’s moons.
I need to keep battering their defences until the bomb is ready – slow up enemy construction.

So.. lots of exposition, lots of useful information, certainly a different way of delivering that info than I’m used to but now hopefully I am armed with the required knowledge to play the game.

Back To The Game
First try: I land on Apogee and scan the ground looking for a tunnel. No luck. Searching some more I find some power lines which maybe I could use to fuel up. Tried and failed, they seem to be more a perimeter fence unless I’m missing something. A further wander and I find a walker. It kills me, though I’m not entirely sure how. Rating: Dead so soon. Let’s try again.

Second try: I spot a ship coming out of the top of a building – I wonder.. I aim for it and finally enter my first tunnel. Let’s see where this leads.

Eventually I find myself in an empty room but happen to spot the text at the bottom of the screen – looks like someone’s communicating with me. Asking if I’d like to build a neutron bomb. I reply yes obviously. I need to supply a case of nuclear material, a lump of mineral rock (Dante), a crate of castrobars (food – from Castron), a cask of Vistian wine (planet 2), an Egron mini rocket (no idea how to get that), an asteroid (oookay), a flat diamond, a cluster of nodules, and the aforementioned professor holed up on Broadway. I finally escape the tunnels (slow, jerky and not much fun) and head out into space.

Ahead we see the 2nd planet Vista and just behind it is Dante, which is where I want to go.

Making it to Dante I decide to perform the volcano refueling trick. I die – though it’s not entirely clear whether the volcano is responsible. Let’s go back to a save en-route to Dante.

Once again, I line up Dante, descend to the planet’s surface with a brief period of confusion as a pirate shoots me with something that reverses the controls, but once again fall foul of whatever it bloody is that is killing me.

In the end my patience just wasn’t there for this one. I wanted to like it, but ultimately it’s a shooter with a few bits tacked on and it never creates a feeling of a real living world in the way that the Elite games of Damocles and Mercenary 3 managed to do. In a way, the problem is reminiscent of the comparison between Bioshock Infinite and System Shock 2, where one is just a shooting gallery with the trappings of story attached and the other is an immersive world that feels like a believable space.

Review: Summer Olympiad

Summer Olympiad

This is someone else’s video – they played it so you don’t have to.

In 1988 the Olympics visited the South Korean city of Seoul, and in the best tradition of the late 80s and early 90s, a million cash-in games were released, just as they would be for world cups and european cups. Some might get a license, and would get to call themselves Olympics 88 or World Cup 90 or whatever the event was, but many would have to make do with something almost, but not quite. And so we find outselves at the 1988 Summer Olympiad, with it’s not-quite selection of sporting events.

We find ourselves at what appears to be a menu. You might expect to click on the skeet and get to do the skeet, or maybe click the diving to do that. Not so. You must instead click on the tooltip at the bottom, which serves as a start game button. 80s UI at it again.

So, clicking to start we find ourselves at the opening ceremony, one which would surely have made the Olympic lawyers get itchy had the game been good enough or notable enough to attract their attention. Thankfully, it’s shit.

You may notice the skeet doesn’t appear in the video above. I suspect that this is because the skeet was pulled from the very bowels of Satan himself. First up, if you find that you must play it, then for fuck’s sake please use the mouse controls. They are utter shit but the joystick for this event is neither use nor ornament. Do you see that tiny black dot in the top middle area? You have to pilot the sight over that black dot and click the right mouse button. But the dot is moving at insane speeds and the mouse is about as responsive as an arthritic slug on valium. I somehow managed to hit 7, though I’m buggered if I know how.

Winter Olympiad also had a shooting event (actually it was a skiing between points and then shooting event) but the targets were still so the unresponsive controls didn’t matter, but here.. what the buggering hell were they thinking?

Moving on we find ourselves at the triple jump. This one in theory shouldn’t be too hard. Waggle the joystick to build up speed, press the firebutton before the jump line for the angle to increase and release when ready, before the jump line. The joystick response is however never reliable enough to actually execute the damn jump, rarely even making it to the sand, my best efforts persistently thwarted.

Moving to the fencing and we find once again that the lag between joystick press and on-screen action is such that I may as well be walking through a bucket of treacle, with lead weights tied to my balls, such is the disadvantage I face against my CPU adversary. This is not fun.

The diving is almost fun – the controls do at least make some kind of sense though I can’t quite fathom the scoring – it’s unclear what is expected of me but apparently I score well on tumble and entry, but 0 on pike.

Finally we have the hurdles. Waggle the stick to run and fire to jump. Simple enough. The 3D-ish graphics are pretty decent, though they do mean facing off against only 3 runners in a curious best of 3, but it works well enough, even if jumping is a little imprecise.

To check whether Winter Olympiad was as good as I remembered I decided to fire it up for comparison. First up, some sensible UI choices. It asks how many players and then lets you type names in, instead of considering an empty name to mean that you don’t want to add any more. It lets you choose which events you want to participate in too. Good start. Music is jolly, chiptune rubbish but still jolly.

The downhill skiing is as bad as I remember. While graphically a delight, your skiier gets in the way so you can’t see the damn obstacles, leaving me wondering why they didn’t take the approach used by Seconds Out, of having a wireframe see-through character. There is a small ‘first-person’ view but that is neither use nor ornament.

The ski jump is still fun – fire to start, fire to jump off the end of the ramp, then up and down to straighten your skis while left and right lean your skiier as you seek to go as far as possible without crashing. Graphics are decent and it’s generally fun. The biathalon is up next, as you ski from point to point, with each stop seeing you shoot at 5 (thankfully stationary) targets. It looks gorgeous and the controls are responsive.

Slalom controls well and looks decent enough as you scroll through its isometric wilderness, but I feel the difficulty is a little misjudged with some of the gates places in impossible positions. Playtesting wasn’t big in the 80s. They save the best for last though with the bob sled. This is a fast-paced 3D 3rd person battle with physics as you manoevre your sled trying to keep it in the pipe through sharp turns that push you up over the edge. It’s fantastic fun, even to this day, and what’s more worrying is that I even remember the damn course having not played it in years.

All this begs the question, why is there such a gap in quality between the two games? For me, it’s night and day, the difference is enormous and mostly driven by responsiveness of controls. Winter Olympiad is the vastly superior game and for the life of me I can’t figure out how Summer Olympiad scored as well as it did in ST/Amiga Format.

Review: Nebulus

Nebulus

Time to correct a travesty of justice, ST/Amiga Format not reviewing Nebulus.

On Christmas Day 1989, 9-year-old me got a hell of a surprise. There was a bloody big box in some wrapping paper. Being a greedy shit like most kids, I ripped the packaging off and found this beast.

I was absolutely delighted – it looked so cool. So I got it all out of the box and assembled and it looked something like this..

Yes the mouse really was that shite, and you don’t even see the god-awful joystick in that picture, but after the Amstrad CPC 464 I’d had up til then this was an absolute beast. And then there was the huge collection of games.

Classics like Afterburner, R-Type, Gauntlet 2, Super Hang-On, Space Harrier, Bomb Jack, Xenon, Double Dragon and Outrun. Lesser known gems like Overlander, Pacmania, Bombuzal, and utter tripe like Super Huey, Predator and Black Lamp. All of them to some degree impressed me when I put the disk in the drive but one game above all made my fucking jaw drop to the floor. That game was Nebulus.

Just fucking look at that. That amazing rotating tower, the reflections, it looks fucking brilliant. It’s also fucking hard. That was my first go at the game in bloody ages and the muscle memory was still there, but dear god it’s hard. The first level is manageable but the 2nd starts being just bloody vicious.

It has that trial and error nature of 80s platformers, where you have to learn which platforms will suddenly disappear from under you, and it has the need to learn the patterns of enemies etc. 8 levels of absolute vicious bastardry. Oh and a second set of 8 levels that are even more vicious. Seriously it’s absolutely vicious, the Dark Souls of 80s platformers.

Urgency is added by the floating balls that come from outside the tower (you can see that in the video at 12 seconds) which means you have to time your moves properly. It gets more frequent as the timer runs down, adding an extra layer of difficulty.

Between levels you get some downtime shooting fish.

Sound is pretty good with a strangely Indian-sounding score in the title screen, though the game itself just has a few sparse effects. It does the job but it’s not the star of the show. It’s the graphics and the gameplay that do it. This game absolutely hooked me, even though I was bloody awful at it.

Rating:
Still Graphics: N/A (they’re never fucking still)
Moving Graphics: 5/5
Soundtrack: 3/5
Lasting Interest: 5/5
Overall: 96% Format Gold

ST/Amiga Format Issue 4

Issue 4 – Download

The World in September 1988

After a lacklustre issue 3 we arrive at the far-more-promising issue 4. Indeed I had trouble choosing what to review, not because there was too little quality (see last week) but because there was simply too much. The October issue, arriving in September, saw the magazine delve into the 68000 line of chips, responsible for powering the Atari ST, the Amiga, and the Mega Drive, with only the SNES choosing a different part among the major 16-bit players. The 68000 also found its way into arcades and into Apple’s hardware (indeed Atari had to change the menus in GEM to avoid being sued by Apple for being a bit too similar).

Before getting to the games I want to briefly cover one serious package reviewed.

This is an ad for STOS, which appeared in the same issue as the review, below. Was the score influenced by the ad? Who knows. What I do know is that I acquired STOS free with an ST Format cover disk about 4 years later.

I was about 7 years old when I first got an Amstrad CPC 464, an old crappy 8-bit with 64Kb of memory. It had basic, and you’d get the listings in the magazines of the day. I’d type them out, get it working, be dissatisfied with it and tweak it and make it more to my liking. Little did I know that was what I’d be doing for the rest of my life. Fast forward to 1992 where I got GFA Basic also free with ST format and began making games and serious software (art packages, music software, etc). GFA basic lacked gaming chops though – moving sprites around was painfully slow and while I was making some sort of game, they were running at 3 frames per second on single-colour backgrounds and the platforms were sprites because I had no idea background tiling was a thing.

Another year later STOS turned up on an ST Format cover disk. It came with the compiler (which I think came a little later) and a bunch of utilities so I think what I got was a little better than what ST Format reviewed. I had an absolute blast with it and the quality of my output improved dramatically. It wasn’t exactly commercial-quality stuff but it did the job and I learned a lot working with it.

While it didn’t have much impact on the commercial scene, with only Baby Jo coming out fairly late in the ST’s life, STOS was a big factor in the Public Domain scene, unlocking so much creative talent that might have otherwise been wasted. Later AMOS would come to the Amiga, though while its featureset was superior its impact would be lesser – partly a product of coming later in the machine’s life. STOS, in my opinion, paved the way for modern tools like Game Maker, Unity, etc.

Back to the games…
Among the previews we find something of a mixed bag, with greatly-lauded games like BAT and Elite mixed in with the oddity that is Battle Chess and the dross that is Spittting Image.

Moving to the reviews, we have a decent selection, but then they tease us by telling us about the games that didn’t make it. I know little of Bubble Ghost, Streetfighter 1, Impossible Mission 2, Vixen, Tanglewood and Bermuda Project. The most important bit is that we miss out on Nebulus (aka Tower Toppler). That for me is fucking criminal. I will be reviewing Nebulus because missing it was a travesty. The following games did make it into the magazine:

– Starglider 2 (Space exploration – Rainbird – £24.95 – 95% Format Gold)
– Federation Of Free Traders (Elite clone – Gremlin Graphics [of Lotus Challenge fame] – £29.95 – 85% Format Gold)
– Eliminator (same dev as Nebulus) – Racey shooty thing – Hewson – £19.99 – 70%)
– Vectorball (Sports thingy – Mastertronic [budget label] – £14.95 – 63%)
– Carrier Command (Rainbird – £24.95 – 85% but not apparently a Format Gold) – reviewing the Amiga version
– Hostages (Jerky run and gun – Infrogrames – £24.95 – 78%)
– Starray (Defender clone – Logotron – £24.95 – 79%)
– Summer Olympiad (Olympics knock-off – Tynesoft – £19.95 – 77%)

These are the games I’ll be reviewing with reasons for my choice:

Nebulus

This game came with my Atari ST and honestly the moment I saw that tower it absolutely blew me away. It was the moment when my jaw dropped to the floor at something so comprehensively better than anything I’d played before on my old Amstrad. The fact that the game was super-tough but insanely addictive was.. ah but let’s not spoil the review.

Starglider 2

Starglider 1 came with my ST I think, and I wasn’t enormously enamoured with it, but Starglider 2 seems so highly regarded by fans that I ought to give it a shot.

Carrier Command

I never played this back in the day but it seems so ambitious for its day and on that basis I really should give it a go. I sense that it’ll be one that requires a bit of effort to review so it may not be super-quick in turning up.

Summer Olympiad

I never played this, but I did play its predecessor, Winter Olympiad. It was a budget release at the time and I had a blast with it. The graphics were smooth and well-drawn and the gameplay more fun than you might expect, so it’s only right that I should give its sequel a try, even if its choice of sports is somewhat eclectic. I reckon I might also cover the prequel briefly just for fun as a bonus.

So – 4 full reviews after 1 full review and a couple of half-reviews. This issue is really a big step up. Likely this is my last big post for this week in this thread but I’ll be preparing content through the week and next weekend so hopefully I’ll get some reviews up in a reasonable time.

If there’s something you’d like me to focus more on, if there’s something I’m missing, or if I’m just plain wrong about a game you love, let me know.

Reviews this month

Review: Starglider 2

Starglider 2 When I first got my Atari ST, it came with Starglider 1, which had the absolutely fantastic theme music when it loaded (see video below), and an absolutely gorgeous bit of art on the loading screen. The game however was a bit of a disappointment, wireframe graphics just didn’t do it for me.…More

Review: Summer Olympiad

Summer Olympiad This is someone else’s video – they played it so you don’t have to. In 1988 the Olympics visited the South Korean city of Seoul, and in the best tradition of the late 80s and early 90s, a million cash-in games were released, just as they would be for world cups and european…More

Review: Nebulus

Nebulus Time to correct a travesty of justice, ST/Amiga Format not reviewing Nebulus. On Christmas Day 1989, 9-year-old me got a hell of a surprise. There was a bloody big box in some wrapping paper. Being a greedy shit like most kids, I ripped the packaging off and found this beast. I was absolutely delighted…More