With your host, Rob Remakes

Tag: ZX Spectrum

Zeroptian Invasion

You know, I was absolutely convinced I’d put words down on Zeroptian Invasion some time back but perhaps I should have double checked that one sooner because no, no, I had not.

I am really fond of Zeroptian Invasion.

I’ve long nurtured an appreciation of the single screen shooter, from Space Invaders, Galaga and the usual suspects through a whole bunch of home computer games, PD, homebrew and indie titles. In my old age, I’ve lost none of my love for the things and Zeroptian Invasion is no exception.

The opening stage presents the player with a really quite lovely Space Invaders-esque game in a gorgeous 70’s arcade meets ZX Spectrum style. Over the course of a fair handful of stages, it adds a wee bit more complexity to the mix, not a great deal because the game stays wonderfully true to its aesthetic and videogame inspirations, but certainly enough to ensure that it keeps the player on their toes.

Think a modern Gorf, you know? It’s that sort of deal.

It’s the kind of game that had it actually existed in the eighties, I’d have fallen in love with it pretty easily and would probably bend your ear off over even now. Given I’m still every bit as awed by similar games today as I was then, it was pretty easy for me to fall in love with it now, nevermind.

It helps in no small part by it being an absolutely gorgeous game! The sprite work is often wonderful and I’m a real sucker for the bezel artwork too.

I’ve been playing it on the PS4 and Switch. Other formats are available.


A skeleton holds onto itself, announcing the ye olde videogame segment

Revisiting Saboteur for the first time in a very long time, all thanks to a slightly messy but the game is perfectly intact recent-ish port.

I was pleasantly surprised how much I still enjoy the game!

I can’t quite put my finger entirely on how it works as well as it does for me but a part of it is how irrevocably tied to a certain strand of VHS film it is. Look, I can’t explain why or how (I’m not entirely convinced anyone knows why), just know that the eighties had the most amazing preoccupation with ninjas and Saboteur gets that.

A screenshot from the PS4 port of Clive Townsend's Saboteur. A ninja rushes into a green tunnel to be confronted by a guard dog and armed security guard. There's a bunch of ladders leading up and down out of the room because it's an eighties videogame and they loved ladders.

Rather than just kick or punch things for points, you’re tasked with sneaking into a waterside warehouse to pilfer a floppy disk and, of course, getting out alive. Naturally the warehouse is crawling with guards, security cameras and guard dogs (which is only a Tadashi Yamashita short of everything you need to make this work) and you’ll have to make short order of them to escape in one piece. I find throwing bricks helps.

What I find most impressive about Saboteur is that it feels like a segment from one of these low budget VHS tat films. You ride in by dinghy, you creep through the warehouse kicking security guards in the face as you go, you fiddle with computer terminals and shunt through underground tunnels in train carriages. It’s probably a whole five or ten minutes of a film made game yet somehow it completely nails the vibe.

It is incredibly eighties action film in a way a lot of other ninja-y games just aren’t. Partly it’s the animations which though super limited, I just love the sneaky ninja walk cycle. Nobody ever ran like this outside of VHS ninja films, except in Saboteur! Partly it’s the vehicles – a dinghy and a helicopter? In the same videogame? Well now!

If you want a tenuous Rob comparison, Saboteur is the American Ninja to the Datasoft Bruce Lee’s Shaw Brothers film. I’d go out on a limb and say Bruce Lee has the better ninja, solely because they’ve got a big stick and don’t need to rummage around in rubble for something to hit somebody with BUT there’s always room for a bit of variety.

It is worth mentioning that Saboteur is very 1985 and from 8 bit home computers so don’t go expecting wonderfully fluid graceful movement here. It totally is clunky!

You don’t chain moves or combo or anything, you stand still to punch someone in the nose, you jump kick them in precisely one (1) frame. The port does very little to remove that old clunk and friction, adds a bit of its own if I’m being truthful, and I don’t think sticking with that hurts the game especially either.

I’ve rarely cared about clunky and that’s the case for Saboteur too. It works enough, you know? Perhaps it may not work enough outside of the hazy VHS moment it’s forever trapped in for me, I’m not sure. To be brutally honest. I don’t really care if it doesn’t – not while it’s still got that magic for me.

Saboteur, a port of its sequel and a new entry into the series (which I really must check out when I have some spare cash) are all available across the usual videogame formats. As usual, I’ve been playing on the PS4.

Video Of The Week: Until I Die – Cookie

Video Of The Week is just any excuse really to link to a video or series that I’ve been enjoying. Chances are there won’t be one every week, mind.

It’s a bit of a silly conceit but I really do enjoy watching someone else play a videogame until they run out of energy/lives in it, just to see how long they can go. I’d totally be down for a festival of this similar to _______ Games Done Quick.

Namcos has been doing Until I Die for aaages now and built up quite the supply of old vids you can work through if you’re so inclined. Latest in that series is Ultimate’s Cookie.

A few minutes in Cookie is good going, I reckon. It’s one of those games that, depending on how luck falls, I find I can either play for ages or have a round over and done with in no time.

As you’ll see in the video, it’s very easy to get caught out by something you have absolutely no way of stopping or avoiding. Luckily, super arcadey and quick to restart means being back in the game really quickly to try again.

If you want to have a try yourself, a Spectrum emulator and a quick search on the internet will see you right seens as it was missing from Rare Replay.

Last Train To Tranz-Central

It's a Speccy game so only a few colours and low res, right. But! It's a cowboy on top of a futuristic train firing at an incoming rocket. There's a ladder that goes into the train where some elaborate futuristic platforms (tables?) occupy space. A blue box reading "lock on" is to the far right. It looks very good indeed.

Just a very, very quick one today.

I finally remembered to get round to buying Last Train To Tranz-Central a few minutes ago after legit forgetting for a ridiculously long time.

Since I first saw the screenshots, I was in love. It’s such great spritework, not only does it carry off the whole futuristic train thing well but screen to screen, manages to look like very little else.

I’d tried the demo, loved that too. Managed to wax lyrical about it on Twitter one time then by quirks of payday timings and my increasingly terrible memory, simply forgot to go back and buy it.

I ended up thinking about it again a few nights back because really, I can’t overstate how much I love how it looks, and finally remembered to punt a few quid over for it.

Better late than ever and I get there in the end.

Another screenshot from the game. This time we're looking at a yellow carriage, the player is inside close to some fetching purple diamonds. There's chains and balls and a display with a red warning sign.

You’ll either need a Spectrum emulator or the real deal hardware to give it a shot. I’ve been playing it on my phone through Speccy Deluxe and it works just great.

Ye Olde Videogame: Alchemist

Ye Olde Videogame is a once a month-ish (or more if I’m feeling fruity) retro game recommendation.

Please sir, I cannot tell a lie, Alchemist is one of a number of videogames I’ve bought over the years for no other reason than it had a big wizard in it. A few weeks back I tried counting up exactly how many games I’d bought for this reason alone and I needed more fingers than I have! So, out of necessity, I stopped counting after ten.

It’s a thing, sorry. I’m trying to deal with it.

It's the poster art for Alchemist. An old wizard in purple garb rests upon a sceptre with a skull on top, the logo is smeared across the screen like a prog rock album left to grow wild. There's also a massive golden eagle hovering over a witch and cauldron. The tagline says "experience the visible adventure!"
I’d hate to experience an invisible adventure so good call, Imagine.

Anyway! Overdelivering on the promise, the big wizard (the eponymous Alchemist) can turn into an even bigger bird. How good is that? I’ll tell you, it’s seven good. That’s the best number of good.

Thinking on, I’m not sure what this means in turns of scale. Like, is the big wizard really a small wizard that turns into a perfectly normal sized bird? Is that it? Have I gotten things all wrong? I’m not sure I could take that right now so let’s just keep believing big wizard, even bigger bird. It’s a videogame and we can have a bird the size of Uranus if we want to.

Playing it now and I’d politely describe it as “compact” – there’s a relative handful of baddies and slight few tasks to be done, all of which can be cleared in a relatively brief amount of time once you know your way round the map. I still like it a lot! My only complaint is the exact same one as I had at the time – the push scrolling can be kinda painful, but you know, 1983 so cut it some slack.

The one thing I absolutely love about Alchemist – and it’s far from alone in doing this at the time – is how well each screen feels like a distinct elsewhere. With only a small map, the game has a lovely sense of place with the castles and caverns making it feel way, way, way more expansive than it is. Using a few screens for each ‘room’ is an especially neat way round achieving this.

Alchemist reminds me that I never needed a massive open world to feel like I’m truly exploring a place and Alchemist is a lovely, early, example of a game world I enjoyed getting lost in, felt present in.

Also, you can shoot lightning from your fingers in it and that’s always a win in my book.

The Blue Danube

Clunky and borderline tuneless but still, Manic Miner has the most recognisable rendition of The Blue Danube outside of 2001. It sounded better in black and white, I swear.

It’s the flashing border that really makes it though. A tremendous intro to a tremendous game.

Dan Dare II

Sorry that it’s a bit of a Dare-fest round here at the moment, just in a comfort read mode for some reason.

art by Martin Wheeler, pic from ZX Art.

Anyway. One of my more profound early (earlier?) inspirations lies with Martin Wheeler’s art for Dan Dare II. Both of the Gang Of Five Speccy Dare games are great (Probe’s entry, not so much) but gosh, the tile work in Dan Dare II still kind of blows me away. It’s up there with the more recent Vallation as one of the best examples of Speccy tile art.

Look at this! What an amazing thing to wring out of a Speccy. The colours! Just wow stuff still for me.

art by Martin Wheeler, screen from ZX Art.

Martin’s still plugging away at games, their latest is Separation for PSVR. Sadly, I can’t play it due to my sore noggin not really being receptive to weighty things being placed on it. It does look gorgeous though.


Scan from Spectrum Computing

Had cause to remember Avalon a day or so back and yeah, I remember the cover art/advert being a tad more imposing than it is. Plus, there’s not much to say about the nuddy fairy beyond “that’s well dodge”. Because it is well dodge.

I’m still in awe of Steve Turner all these years later and Avalon is just one of many reasons for that. It’s one of a special few games that through some exceptionally smart sleight of hand gave the impression it was so much more, so much deeper, than it was.

That’s not to underestimate how much was crammed into the thing or to do it down, on the contrary – it’s to point at the sheer skill involved in making an already pretty hefty game feel even more.

It’s a magic (yes, magic) that’s worked on so many different fronts! The wonderfully large player character, Maroc, who floats ethereally around the screen, bouncing against walls and obstacles rather than the usual few frames of walking animation. The sparse landscapes, enough to paint an image of a forest or a dungeon and to leave the rest to the imagination. That the player controls Maroc through the use of a ‘MOVE’ spell, just one of a number of spells, does wonders in selling the whole controlling a projection of Maroc lark.

It’s an especially clever design. Everything is in service to selling the whole wizard thing and it works a treat. An early fantasy exploration game that took familiar videogame parts and sewed them to create something that still feels kinda special 40 or so years later.

It’s a remarkable thing indeed and hard to believe it came so early in the lifespan of the Spectrum. 1984! Games were still in short trousers then! Ridiculous! But brilliant. Very very brilliant.

Project Future

There’s a very particular genre of ZX Spectrum maze games where you travel room to room, exploring a pretty reasonably sized map and as you roam, enemies spawn in at random. I mention this only because it remains my favourite lost genre of videogame.

There’s similarities to a bundle of roguelite games (I really dislike the wooly, almost meaningless, taxonomy here but what can you do?) and to top down 8-bit RPGs but the focus isn’t on puzzling or story, it’s running from room to room and doing a bit of dodging or shooting. The larger goal is invariably collect 5 thingies or something, where the main obstacle keeping the player from their goal is just finding their way to the thingies without snuffing it.

They’re kinda simple but the pleasure for me is in both learning to navigate the twists and turns of the map and the speed you flit through them. It really appeals to my ADD brain, you know?

courtesy of RZX Archive

You’re never lingering in one room for more than an incredibly short while. There’s a possibility of getting held up shooting stuff but really that’s only ever momentary.

Dominic Wood’s Project Future is probably my favourite of them all (though Steve Crow’s homage to Ultimate’s Atic Atac, Wizards Lair, comes an incredibly close second place).

I’m an absolute sucker for chunky cartoon graphics, I’d sooner be running through a spaceship than a forest or whatever and I like games to use all the colours. Project Future is all that.

I’ve also a soft spot for its use of the Spectrum’s FLASH command to liven up backgrounds a tad and the enemy death animation that mimics a part of a Vidkidz style sprite explosion is, obviously, right up my street. I enjoy that the map is laid out to approximate the floor plan of a spaceship.

Really though, it’s the little bubbley lead character that is Space Cadet Farley with their massive helmet that got me first. Readers, I would marry them and we could both go for space jaunts in our space C5 and everything would be wonderful forever.

As long as there’s a maze, mind. Otherwise the deal is off.

Beaver Bob

Beaver Bob In Dam Trouble is my PT, or my Silent Hills if you prefer. Except instead of a playable advert, there’s only a magazine advert and a loading screen designed by someone else.

To be fair, it is a really good loading screen.

pic from The Gremlin Graphics Archive.

I have no idea what Beaver Bob was ever supposed to be either. You know as much as I do. Younger me was sold from the moment they saw the magazine advert regardless.

A game about a beaver? I’m there for that. It might have some log chopping? Oh yes. Please. Beavers and logs sounds great.

I bet Beaver Bob would be amazing too. I can say that because it never launched, maybe never existed. It’s preserved forever in that moment when I first saw the advert, preserved forever in the thoughts of all the things it could be. All the guesses, all the hopes, all the beavers.

It’s the industry’s open secret that more games get some way to existing than the public ever see. Sometimes those games seep through into the gaming conciousness. Maybe it’s an announcement, a tweet, a rumour or a trailer released before things happen. Things happen a lot to games.

They’re always the best games too. You just know they play fantastic, they look fantastic. There’s no day 1 patches, no microtransactions, no bugs.

Just a beaver and their logs, happily being the best game that never was for the best part of 40 years.

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