Space Panic, Arcade

Universal‘s 1980 arcade platformer, Space Panic, may not look like much by today’s standards, but it is a hugely influential video game.

For starters: it pre-dates Donkey Kong by a year, which makes it one the very first (if not the first) platform games ever made. Certainly one of the very first to use the now familiar brick platforms and ladders style of graphics.

The aim of the game is simple: you avoid the monsters; dig holes for them to fall into, and batter them on the head with your spade when they fall into a hole. You’ve only got a limited time to get to one that has fallen into a hole, and if it climbs out it fills the hole as it exits – sometimes becoming more powerful.

You can score more points by dropping a monster through multiple holes, which means digging a series of them underneath each other. Which is easier said than done… The chasing monsters have pretty sketchy AI, but since there are five of them it is very easy to get caught out. On later screens different-coloured monsters appear and these require dropping through more than one hole.

There’s also a timer in the form of an oxygen counter. Take too long to squash the bug-eyed beasties and your man goes red-faced as he slowly asphyxiates…

Space Panic is reasonable fun to play now, and the ironic thing about the game is that there are probably better (con)versions out there, and almost all of them are unofficial clones. The 8-bit home computer market was awash with Space Panic clones in the early 80s – most were poor, but a few were arguably better than this arcade original.

More: Space Panic on Wikipedia

Pac-Man, Arcade

Known as “Puck Man” in its native Japan, and renamed as “Pac-Man” in the West*, this 1980 video game is one of the most iconic brands ever created in the history of the human race. And I’m not being funny here – Pac-Man is actually seen by historians as exactly that: instantly recognisable to most people and indelibly fixed in our consciousness.

While not the first colour video game ever made, it was certainly one of the very earliest, and one of the very best.

The aim of Pac-Man is simple: move around the maze and eat all the dots to complete the stage. There are four ghosts, however, whose role it is to stop you, and they can do that simply by touching you. So avoiding them is paramount.

You can turn the tables on the ghosts for a limited time by eating one of four ‘power pills’, located in each of the four corners. Once eaten the ghosts turn blue, allowing Pac-Man to chase them and eat them for bonus points.

The maze has a useful ‘portal’ which allows Pac-Man to exit one side of the screen and come out on the other side. There’s a ‘pen’ in the middle where the ghosts come out (and are sent back to when eaten). There’s also a space underneath the pen where a series of fruits and other bonus items appear, which Pac-Man can eat for extra points.

As the game progresses the difficulty ratchets up ever tighter as the ghosts get faster, and the time power pills last gets shorter (until, at the highest difficulty level, they no longer turn ghosts blue).

Pac-Man was originally intended to have no ending, but a bug in the game meant that a so-called “kill screen” appeared on level 256, corrupting half the screen and making it impossible to eat the required number of dots to complete the stage (the kill screen is shown at the very bottom of this article).

Still great fun to play now, Pac-Man spawned a number of sequels and remakes, and an inevitable tsunami of clones. Check out Pac-Man Championship DX for a modern take on the concept.

* = When releasing the game into English language territories Namco were concerned that people might change the ‘P’ in the original title to an ‘F’, and therefore bring the game into disrepute, which is why they changed it to Pac-Man. 🙂

More: Pac-Man on Wikipedia

Pac-Man Kill Screen

Pac-Man Kill Screen

International Karate Plus, Game Boy Advance

This handheld conversion of Archer Maclean‘s classic IK+ was published in 2002 by Ignition Entertainment and is generally quite excellent.

The only real complaint I have is that the fighters are slightly oversized (in relation to the backgrounds), although you probably wouldn’t notice unless you’d played the C64 version, or Amiga/Atari ST versions. Those of us who have played the earlier versions might be slightly irked by this scaling discrepancy, because it gives the player less room to fight in. Does this affect gameplay adversely in this GBA conversion? No, no really. Yes, there is less room to fight in, but International Karate is more about close-quarters combat, and timing your moves correctly, than jumping all over the shop like in Street Fighter II. So the oversized characters aren’t really a major problem.

This GBA conversion seems to have more responsive controls than previous versions, probably because it runs at a higher frame rate. I’m not entirely sure if that’s true of not. One thing is true: IK+ on the GBA runs at a blistering pace. Later levels require zen-like skill to beat and are often over in seconds.

IK+ is excellent on the Game Boy Advance, although does have limited appeal. It is a game you can pick up, play and enjoy at any time, though.

More: International Karate Plus on Wikipedia

Magic Carpet 2, PC

The full title of this 1995 sequel is Magic Carpet 2: The Netherworlds, and it is an excellent continuation of the series.

Magic Carpet 2 features exterior and interior (cavernous) levels that are more dense than the original, with more new monsters, secrets, and evil wizards to defeat. It also has a multiplayer mode (which the first game didn’t have).

Graphically, Magic Carpet 2 is more impressive than its predecessor and the use of night and day in the game results in a more varied colour palette – and a more interesting landscape – than previously. Again: the landscape is deformable to some degree by shooting it with fireballs, and various locations hide triggers that spawn monsters, new spells, and bosses. Unlike the first game, Magic Carpet 2 features a useful ‘Help Mode’, that points out what everything is – until you get sick of it and turn it off. It helps get into the game quicker, and not miss any important gameplay features.

The gameplay in Magic Carpet 2 is pretty much the same as before: build a castle; collect mana with your balloon; build your castle up; collect more mana; rid the landscape of monsters; complete any quest objectives.

Most monsters are pretty tough, so the best tactic is to lure them away from groups to deal with them one at a time. The killer bees, for example, will kill you quickly if a number of them swarm you, so it’s best to split them up if you can, which you can do with your deft carpet skills. Mastering the carpet is key to beating the game, and the controls work extremely well, allowing you to perform very tight and precise manoeuvres with just a modicum of skill. You can also fly backwards and sidewards, which helps a lot. The controls are very responsive, though, so do take some getting used to.

There are 25 levels to play through in total – all of which can be completed quickly (by completing quest objectives), or can be scoured for more spells and mana, and a higher completion percentage, if so wished.

Magic Carpet 2 can also be changed to SVGA mode (640×480) ‘on the fly’, meaning: you can switch between the default VGA (320×200) resolution, and SVGA resolution by just clicking an option in the menu, although I couldn’t find a way of making SVGA the default (every time I restarted the game it ran in VGA, and I had to manually change the resolution). The game also crashed quite a bit for me in SVGA mode (usually preceded by graphical glitches), and I had some problems saving the game (and having to restart from the beginning – four times so far). Playing in VGA proved to be more stable (no crashes). And this is the bought GOG.com version I’m talking about… In spite of that I really enjoyed playing Magic Carpet 2 again – it is better than the first Magic Carpet, and it is also a superb game in its own right. Another classic DOS game from Bullfrog.

More: Magic Carpet 2 on Wikipedia
GOG.com: Magic Carpet 2: The Netherworlds on GOG.com

Magic Carpet, PC

Magic Carpet from Bullfrog was first released in 1994 through Electronic Arts. It is a DOS-based, first-person action game with you – the player character – flying a ‘magic carpet’ around a series of islands, fighting evil wizards and monsters and collecting ‘mana’ to increase your magical powers.

The game plays a bit like a flight simulator, although obviously flight sims don’t have magic spells, castles and monsters that shoot fireballs at you. Using a mouse and keyboard the carpet flies around very smoothly. Initially it moves quite slowly, but acquiring a ‘boost’ spell helps speed up when necessary. Which is often because the many monsters found wandering the landscape are actually quite tough cookies.

There are numerous spells to collect – usually in the shape of a red jar, and these only appear once you’ve flown near them to disable their “invisibility lock”, forcing you to explore the whole map – or at least certain places – to find them.

The one spell you begin with is the ‘Build Castle’ spell. Fire this into the ground (or sea) somewhere and a castle is created, which then sends out a balloon to collect any mana you’ve claimed. Neutral mana is coloured gold; your mana is coloured white; enemy mana is coloured whatever colour they’ve chosen. Mana can be found for free scattered around the landscape, or can be generated by killing monsters. The basic aim is to collect a set amount of mana on each level in order to progress to the next.

The landscape itself is deformable (to a degree), meaning: you can blast it with fireballs and change the elevation. You have to be careful where you shoot, though. Accidentally blasting friendly villages will usually result in a hail of arrows to contend with – as well as everything else – so is not advisable. What is advisable in Magic Carpet is to learn when to run away. And also how to ‘peck’ at tough opponents, and avoid their shots at you. Becoming familiar to the two-button command system is a must too, but learning how to play Magic Carpet properly is worth it, because it’s still a great game.

By level three you’ll also be up against a rival wizard, who flies out on his carpet, turning any mana he finds his colour. You have to build your castle quickly and turn any mana he’s earmarked as his, to your colour, and fend him off (with fireballs) until your balloon collects the mana. This results in some very exciting dogfights over coastlines. You can even get lucky have monsters kill your opponent – it depends on where he goes. When he dies, though, you get a message on screen. If you die, you start back at the castle and can continue the level without losing progress.

Finally: there are two really weird “3D” modes in the game (toggled by pressing F10), one being red/blue mode for use with cheap red/blue 3D glasses (these were supplied with the original game), and also a Stereogram mode, where a complex pattern of coloured dots are used to create a 3D image. I remember being able to actually see the Stereogram image when I first played this game back in 1994, but trying it now I just can’t see it. It must be age… There’s also a ‘high res’ mode (toggled by pressing R), although it really chugs (or at least it did for me) and I found it best to play in VGA mode for a higher frame rate.

Magic Carpet is a classic MS-DOS game from Bullfrog and is still very much fun to play today. GOG.com are selling the ‘Plus’ version of Magic Carpet, which includes the Hidden Worlds expansion pack, and it’s well worth picking up, as is the even better sequel, Magic Carpet 2.

More: Magic Carpet on Wikipedia
GOG.com: Magic Carpet Plus on GOG.com

IndyCar Racing, PC

Papyrus Design Group‘s 1993 classic IndyCar Racing is a fast, MS-DOS-based racing game with lots to interest petrolheads, sim fans, and geeks.

It features most of the drivers and teams from the 1993 IndyCar season, except Nigel Mansell, his moustache, and a couple of other drivers (probably because of image rights) and it sees you pitting your wits against them in either single events or a championship season.

Graphically, IndyCar Racing looks a little primitive now, but back in 1993 it was pretty mindblowing. Especially the Instant Replay feature, which is much more advanced than the one seen in IndyCar‘s predecessor, Indy 500. IndyCar Racing records up to an hour of race time from different angles and allows immediate playback and cutting between cameras. Watching races in IndyCar Racing is almost as much fun as racing in them…

With realism turned up, IndyCar Racing is extremely challenging (one crash and it’s all over). With realism turned down it’s great to just take it out for a spin. The cockpit looks great with all its instrumentation; the tracks twist, tilt, and undulate beautifully; the speed blur on the tyre logos is superb, and the feeling of speed in general is excellent.

There’s a two-player option, via either modem, or null modem (connecting two PCs together via a serial port). I’ve got no idea if you can play multiplayer via DOSBox – I wouldn’t be surprised if you could – which would be the ‘Holy Grail’ for any IndyCar Racing fans out there.

More: IndyCar Racing on Wikipedia