Bringing It Home – The Speccy takes on the giants of the arcade.
These days it’s the movie tie-ins. Those bastardisations of the art of gaming. Soulless, thoughtless, substandard shit designed to extract the money out of unsuspecting parents and break the hearts of young gamers everywhere. Back in the old days we didn’t give a toss about film licenses (in fact, truth be told, we actually got a few decent ones). Instead our Christmases were ruined by coin-op conversions. Shit ones usually produced by US Gold and programmed by callous fuckwits.
However, sometimes we got away with it. It wasn’t all shoddy ports of Kung Fu Master, 720o and Breakthru. Sometimes the fates conspired to actually produce a title that earned classic status on our 8-bit chums but also, by some dark witchery, matched or bettered the original
In these days of Xbox 360s, Wiis and PS3s (okay maybe not them) the idea of playing your favourite arcade game is no big deal but back then recreating a dedicated collosal husk of arcade power onto a ZX Spectrum with all the memory of a goldfish covered in tattoos saying ‘that guppy killed your wife’ was a whole other ballgame and I’m not talking Arkanoid.
So here’s a quick rundown of a few Speccy conversions that defied the odds. Player 1… ready?
If you’re over thirty and have ever been to a seaside arcade, you will surely be familiar with Bomb Jack. Like most early arcade hits, this was a game you played purely for points. The whole ethos behind this game is to beat the high score whilst going as far into the game as possible. This was back in the days when skill was rewarded. Experts could pay 10p for like an hour’s play. Bonus if you, like me, were dragged down to the local gym whenever your Dad was playing squash and left you like 50p to kill 3 hours with.
Gameplay-wise Bombjack plays out like Pac-Man but with gravity. You dive around the place defusing (read: grabbing) bombs, avoiding enemies and gobbling power pills that allow you to go on the offensive. The brightly coloured, memorable backdrops (I’ll forget my own name before I forget the order of the levels) and imaginative enemies gave this game a charm all of its own and a subtle difficulty curve ensured instant addiction for anyone with a spare 10p piece.
Okay, well it’s not a technical bohemoth of an arcade game is it? So the Speccy conversion of this game would definately be expected to keep up and it does so admirably. The backdrops are lovingly recreated in the Speccy’s limited palette and the enemies harrass you with the same chaotic approach as this game’s arcade counterpart.
Where the Speccy improves on the arcade version is in the controls. They’re just a little tighter and more responsive than the arcade version and this makes those decisive twists and turns just that more important. Maybe they just couldn’t be bothered recreating the inertia but either way the arcade game, for all of its retro beauty, just isn’t quite as satisfying to play.
Fans of the series may want to check out the Gameboy conversion and also Mighty Bombjack on the NES. Don’t even think about firing up Bombjack 2 though.
Rush ‘N’ Attack (Arcade)
Rush N Attack, possibly the most crassly named game of all time, was a fairly average romp through four levels of stabby/shooty action where you got to live out the 80s version of the American Dream which simply involved killing Russians. This literally was American culture back then. Red Dawn, Rambo, Raid Over Moscow and Rush N Attack… quite scary if you think about it. Still they’ve moved on now, right?
Despite its cult status Rush N Attack just isn’t that good. The muddy controls (up to jump anyone?) just don’t mix well with the fierce challenge this game offers. The occasional weapon pick-ups at least break up some of the monotony but after a while, sheer weight of numbers mean that the enemy is probably going to provide you with a seemingly unavoidable death. Luckily the player will often succumb to boredom before the frustration sets in.
Green Beret (Speccy)
Rush N Attack? Forget that! The slightly more discerning UK gamers of the Eighties weren’t ever going to put up with a rubbish name like that. Step forward ‘Green Beret’… and then step aside. As any fool knows, this game should be called ‘Green Bert’. Reason? Your Sinclair decreed it and who’s going to argue with THE BEST MAGAZINE EVER PRODUCED?
Luckily for Spec-chums, the home conversion doesn’t just improve on the name but it also radically improves the gameplay. Bert’s auto-stab motion soon makes short work of those god damned commie bastards (oh shit… the bigotry is contagious!) and the controls are far more responsive. The frustration of the coin-op gives way to maniacal joy as you stab dogs in their faces and launch rockets at the Ruskie hoards. Take that Abramovich, you bastard.
‘Nekketsu Koha Kunio-kun’ was the spiritual to the legendary Double Dragon arcade game. Rebadged in the UK with the name ‘Renegade’ the game followed the standard arcade fighting game plot. Guy meets girl, guy loses girl, guy kicks everyone’s fucking head in, guy gets girl. Inspiring stuff indeed.
As with Double Dragon, the gameplay saw your protagonist walking the gritty streets of whatever desolate urban wasteland this game was modelled on whilst fighting numerous gang-members on his way to confront the big boss.
Whilst this game introduced, or at least popularised, some of the elements that defined the scrolling beat-em-up genre it is somewhat hamstrung by its slow gameplay, curiously unintuitive two button attack system and some blocky graphics. However, there is still enough there to warrant a cursory load on MAME.
Now this is what I’m talking about. Renegade may have been surpassed in the arcades by Double Dragon but on the Speccy this ruled the streets. Eschewing the coin-op’s control method, Mike Lamb (of God) chose a simple, but effective, one button system which allowed the player to perform all manner of kicks, punches and even a very cheeky throw.
The imposing sense of danger was palpable as up to four gang-members at a time surrounded you with the sole intention of using your eyes as footballs. Luckily, Rene’s array of moves were more than a match for these Warriors wannabes. If anything the game was maybe a tad too easy (although it did get more difficult as you looped the game’s five levels) but it was such a joy to play that you could still find yourself losing an hour to it.
Great graphics combined with eye-watering sound has secured Renegade a place in the hearts of nearly every Speccy gamer and proved that even in the demanding world of the scrolling beat em up the Speccy could still pack one hell of a punch.
R-Type. The horizontally scrolling shoot ’em up legend. In 1987 this was the equivalent of Gears Of War, Halo 3 and Mass Effect rolled into one. Jaw-droppingly beautiful yet suitably grotesque and technically superior to anything else in the arcades at the time. Nothing else turned heads like R-Type. It had the maddest levels, gigantic bosses and a weapon system that was officially endorsed by GOD HIMSELF!
This was the evolution of games like ‘Defender’, ‘Nemesis’ and ‘Salamander’. One ship flying deep into enemy lines, taking out bosses with your lasers, navigating bizarre biomechanical scenary and shooting waves of little bastards out of the sky with a stream of firepower usually reserved for American college students.
You weren’t totally alone though. You were aided by a small pod called ‘The Force’ which you could upgrade like some sort of genetically modified pet skinhead until it dispensed death with the terrifying regularity of a pitbull in a council estate. The Force could either follow your ship, firing when you did, or could attach to dramatically amplify your offensive power whilst also acting as a small, but effective, shield.
It is a testiment to R-Type’s massive reputation that the game has never really been equalled (although R-Type 3 and Delta came close) and it’s still a pleasure firing up the old dear on MAME today. Well at least until you get to level five at which point it rather overdoes the difficulty and decides to add a little medicine to go with all that sweet sugar it’s been giving you.
Surely this isn’t possible. For some reason software lightweights ‘Electric Dreams’ bought the rights to this conversion knowing that you cannot squeeze R-Type into 48k of memory. However, they signed up programmer Bob Pape to handle the project and gave him orders to keep it full colour. He managed it, presumably inbetween walking on water and turning water into wine.
All eight levels, all the alien ships, all the massive bosses (including the giant mothership that was level 3) and that weapons system. Its all in there.
Some limitations inevitably apply… firstly it’s a multiloader. Still, this is a small price to pay for the mad skills. Secondly, the sound is standard, beepy 48k fare. But everything else is spot on. And the weapon system actually benefits from the conversion, appearing if anything a little beefier. Especially the ring laser, matron.
The genius of Bob Pape really cannot be understated here. This is a technical tour-de-force, a conversion of an arcade behemoth with practically nothing left out. So. a bit of a triumph of stupidity over sense but it works and who can ask for anything more than that? In the words of Richie Cunningham ‘I love R-Type, it’s swell!’.