H.A.T.E., ZX Spectrum

Costa Panayi‘s final game on the ZX Spectrum was published by Gremlin Graphics in 1989. It is an isometric shoot ’em up in the mould of Zaxxon, and it is technically very impressive.

Generally, games at the end of a machine’s life are usually technically accomplished, predominantly because programmers tend to have a good understanding of the hardware at that point, and H.A.T.E. (Hostile All-Terrain Encounter) is a good example of a modest home computer being pushed to its limits by video game coding.

Developer Panayi uses various techniques to squeeze as much variety into H.A.T.E. as possible, such as providing the player with both an aircraft and a ground assault vehicle to play with. There are narrow ravines, landing strips, undulating hills, and (of course) waves of oncoming aliens to blast. The basic idea is to collect plasma cells (the remains of nuclear generators) as you go, and how many you have at the end of a level determines how many lives you have in the next.

H.A.T.E. has a number of great touches that elevate it above much of the competition. The shadow underneath the ship is superb. It follows the contours of the landscape very convincingly and really puts the ship in 3D space (even though these are 2D graphics pretending to be 3D). The diagonal scrolling is silky smooth and full-screen (instead of contained within a tiny window), and is very impressive for a Spectrum game. There is some slowdown – when there are lots of sprites on-screen at once – but it doesn’t mar the game at all.

Hostile All-Terrain Encounter remains playable and enjoyable to this day and comes highly recommended as a Speccy retro classic. Amiga and Atari ST versions were also published, although I prefer this original version because it suits the machine better.

More: H.A.T.E. on Wikipedia

Alien Highway, ZX Spectrum

The direct sequel to Highway Encounter, Alien Highway is an isometric, third-person shoot ’em up with you taking control of a robot trying to push a bomb up a road, in order to destroy an invading alien base.

Of course it’s not quite as simple as pushing the bomb up the road – you must clear any obstacles and shoot any aliens as you go, because the obstacles will hamper your progress, and the aliens will rob you of your lives if they touch or shoot you. So Alien Highway is part shooter; part puzzle game – just like its predecessor. In fact: the gameplay in both is very similar, but that is not a bad thing because the feel of the game (and the rudimentary physics that drive it) are exceptional.

Unlike the previous game, Alien Highway was not programmed by Costa Panayi, but by the late Mark Haigh-Hutchinson, who it has to be said did a marvellous job. Haigh-Hutchinson later went on to work on such illustrious titles as: Sam & Max hit the Road, Metroid Prime, and Zombies Ate My Neighbors.

Alien Highway was first published in 1986 by Vortex Software.

More: Alien Highway on Wikipedia

Highway Encounter, ZX Spectrum

Highway Encounter is another classic ZX Spectrum game created by the talented and prolific Costa Panayi of Vortex Software. It was first published in 1985.

You control a robot called a ‘Vorton’ (which looks a bit like Dalek), and who must push a bomb through a thirty-screen length of road towards an alien base in order to destroy it. The Vorton can move in eight directions and can fire a ball of plasma from its head. The weapon can be used for shooting alien defenders who attack you, and also for moving barrels and other obstacles that block the way.

Some obstacles require that the robot leave the bomb behind to clear the way ahead, although this can lead to an early death if not careful.

Highway Encounter is simple to play and very challenging. Graphically it is appealing too and seems to have stood the test of time rather well. It’s still worth playing today, along with its 1986 sequel, Alien Highway.

More: Highway Encounter on Wikipedia

Millipede, Arcade

Millipede is a direct sequel to Atari‘s Centipede and was first distributed into video game arcades in 1982.

It’s basically the same trackball-controlled gameplay as before, but with a few changes and enhancements.

You control a small elf (yes, an elf – called Archer) who can move anywhere within a small area at the bottom of the screen. Millipedes – long, multi-sectioned insects – move side to side and down the screen, turning when they hit a mushroom (or the side of the screen). What this basically means is that hitting mushrooms makes the millipede move down the screen quicker, so shooting the mushrooms and removing them from the millipede’s path helps keep it higher up the screen for longer. The ‘elf’ fires constantly if you hold the fire button down, but – crucially – he will not fire another bullet until the last one has gone. So shooting becomes tactical at certain times.

Differences to Centipede include: DDT bombs that can be shot once and will kill any insects caught in the blast radius; a bonus level where a swarm of bees replace the usual millipede; the choice of whether to start at an advance level before the game starts; and the introduction of a variety of new enemy bugs. The millipede itself also moves faster than the centipede in the previous game, which makes it harder to hit.

Millipede is a fast and enjoyable shooter from the early days of video game arcades. It’s also been converted to many home systems and is still popular today. Considering that it’s been 37 years since it’s release, that is quite remarkable.

More: Millipede 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

Xenon 2 Megablast, Amiga

This 1989 shooter was designed by The Bitmap Brothers but programmed by The Assembly Line – a collaboration that resulted in one of the best-remembered Bitmap Brothers‘ games.

Xenon 2 Megablast is a vertically-scrolling shoot ’em up with five distinct levels, each divided into two sections. The colourful and detailed backdrops scroll parallax and give a nice feeling of depth, and the game has no problem chucking loads of sprites around.

Gameplay is heavily reliant on power-ups and at times can be a bit overwhelming with all the add-ons enabled – they all look cool though and wreak amazing destruction. Xenon 2 has a neat gameplay mechanic where you can reverse the direction of scrolling for a number of seconds, to avoid dead ends, and help defeat bosses.

A shop (called Colin’s Bargain Basement) appears mid-level, and at the end of a level, where you can buy a variety of offensive and defensive power-ups. Credits to buy stuff are awarded when you pick up bubbles left behind by shooting enemies.

Xenon 2 was one of the first games to have a reasonable recreation of a pop song as its title theme, that being: Bomb the Bass‘s “Megablast (Hip Hop on Precinct 13)“, programmed by David Whittaker. The Amiga version probably has the best rendition – later conversions often simplified it.

More: Xenon 2 Megablast on Wikipedia

Jail Break, Commodore 64

Jail Break is a conversion of the Konami arcade game of the same name, and was developed and published by Konami themselves in 1986.

It’s a very spartan run-and-gun game where you’re basically a lone policeman, up against waves of escaping convicts.

Rescuing fleeing civilians will gain you an extra weapon – a shotgun or a bazooka – though neither really makes any impact on the gameplay. Which is truly awful.

If there was an award for worst sprites in a video game, the Commodore 64 version of Jail Break would be in contention. The expanded characters look ridiculous, frankly, and are animated just as badly.

The game’s only saving grace is that there’s some colour variation in the different stages. And it has a nice loading screen/tune. Woopie… Otherwise, it’s a pile of retro-gaming excrement. Konami really took their eye off the ball with this one…

More: Jail Break on Mobygames

Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy, Atari Jaguar

Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy was released for the Atari Jaguar in 1993. It is a side-scrolling, ‘bullet hell’ shooter, and it is awful.

Why is it so bad? Well, firstly: the graphics are rubbish. They are unimaginative, pre-rendered, SG workstation visuals that look very dated in this day and age, and they don’t gel well together in my opinion.

Secondly: the gameplay is dull. There is actually little to make Trevor McFur stand out from the competition. The asteroids and enemies that come at you are bland. The backgrounds are bland. The music is bland. The power-ups are bland. The boss battles are bland. Even the use of animals in a planetary ‘war’ situation seems like a hackneyed attempted to copy what Nintendo did with Star Fox.

If Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy has an upside it’s that it’s inoffensive and could probably entertain a child for an hour or two. Otherwise: it’s a bit of a joke on the shooter scene. And another terrible Atari Jaguar game rushed to market, lacking detail and polish.

More: Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy on Wikipedia