Monday, 17 February 2014

Vectrex console and 32-in-1 cart!!! (Part One, Games 1-12) Wowzers!

The Vectrex was released in 1982, first by General Electric, then later by Milton Bradley (as my version is). It was the first and, to this day, only home video game console to use vector graphics, so by early 80's standards the graphics were phenomenal.

Every video game console prior to the 90's promised the 'arcade' experience at home despite having nowhere near the hardware capabilities. Scratchy sound, a feeble d-pad instead of a joystick and so on. Now I don't have a Neo-Geo or a MAME cabinet to compare it to or anything, but I can say quite confidently that out of all my consoles, the Vectrex is the only one that truly delivers an arcade-like experience.

Now, I'm not saying it's perfect or anything. The controller's joystick is a bit tiny, and neither it nor the buttons are microswitched or anything as arcade-y and luxurious as that, but this thing has a built in vector screen, just as many of the arcade machines of the day did.

So fantastic, my camera can't keep up with it.

Just look at it. Look at it! LOOK AT IT! It's beautiful. And the sound is just as good.

All this aside, of course, a console is only as good as it's games. The Vectrex can be as fancy-pants as it wants but if it's games suck it doesn't do much good. Fortunately, the quality of Vectrex games is generally pretty high. It had a very meager library back in the day (29 officially released games), some of which were considered to be very high quality arcade ports. One cool feature was that all consoles came pre-loaded with a game called 'Minestorm' which is an asteroids-esque arcade shooter, and a pretty damn fun one at that. Up til now, the homebrew scene for the Vectrex has been running strongly considering the relative obscurity of the console, more than doubling the size of the Vectrex library, and creating unofficial but pretty impressive peripherals like the VecVox voice synthesiser. 


 Both peripherals were way ahead of their time, but unfortunately are  pretty rare and expensive now.

In the 1990's, all officially released Vectrex games were moved into the public domain, which means there are plenty of entirely legal Vectrex multicarts out there. Most include all officially released games, and any number of homebrews and prototypes ranging all the way up to 72 in 1 carts. I have one of the more basic versions, a 32 in 1 dip switch cartridge called 'Vectrom', which includes all officially released titles except those which require the super rare 3d Imager, and Animaction, an animation program that needed extra memory in order to save data, so isn't included on most multicarts. The Vectrex also had a 'light pen' peripheral which was necessary for a couple of art and music programs, which I don't have either (although I might build my own soon), so a few of the games included are unplayable.

32 times the fun!

What I do have, however, is a collection of homebrews, arcade ports and quirky original games that really show off the Vectrex's superior graphics and gameplay capabilities. It's also worth mentioning that the Vectrex was monochrome, so used transparent coloured plastic overlays to colour the games (like a few of the very early home consoles, most famously the Magnavox Odyssey). Unfortunately, I only own one of these overlays, as I only own one boxed cartridge other than the multicart. 

I'm going to do this in two or three parts because even when doing brief reviews, 32 in a row is a lot for me to write, and a lot for you to read. Anyway, let's have a gander at some games!

#1: Minestorm

Bloody camera blur again. Just trust me it's absolutely gorgeous.

Minestorm is a great game. What's more, it's a great free game! Each Vectrex console has Minestorm built in, starting up when there is no other cartridge inserted. At heart, Minestorm is an asteroids remake, however, there are a few differences that make it a markedly different game. As the name suggests, rather than Asteroid's asteroids, minestorm has mines! A really nice animation at the beginning of each level shows a very crisp looking craft moving down the screen (with a beautiful scaling effect only made possible by the wonders of vector graphics!) dropping mine spawns everywhere. Your mission is to destroy all of the mines without being hit. The mines pop up from visible spawn points and move around the screen, destroying your ship if you touch one. Admittedly, for the first few stages this is all you get, and it's a bit too easy to be properly fun. Fortunately a few new game elements are thrown at you later on, like enemy ships that lay more mines, or a mine that fires homing missiles when hit. 


Unlike Asteroids, your ship doesn't have the same inertia 'drift'. When you let go of the accelerate button, you drift a little, but to nothing like the extent you do in Asteroids (something I have always found pretty annoying). Basically, Minestorm is a fun little shooter that anyone who likes Asteroids should love equally. The fact that it was built in to the system is also super awesome because it really exemplifies the Vectrex's ability to bring true arcade-quality games into the family home. Anyone who bought a Vectrex back in the day would have been thrilled to find a top quality game playable right out of the box.

#2 Armor Attack

That's me getting blown up :(

When I first played Armor Attack, I thought of Atari's Combat. The tank control is pretty much the same and the graphics are reminiscent of it, just with the bonus of being vector and therefore absolutely brilliant. However, I quickly realised that Armour Attack is a much deeper game. Combat is a two player only game, while Armor Attack is for one or two players. This may seem like a really obvious difference, but it actually changes the gameplay quite a lot. Rather than one enemy controlled by the other player, in single player mode you get put up against AI-run tanks and helicopters, giving the game a significant single-player challenge.  Don't get me wrong, Combat is fantastic and in my opinion one of the purest and best two player games out there, but its really nice to be able to enjoy a very similar game on your lonesome. Besides, I only have one Vectrex controller.

#3 Berzerk

Berzerk! One of my all time favorite games and the Vectrex version is probably my favorite port that I own. For the uninitiated, Berzerk is a maze/shooter game in which you move around a series of maze-like screens shooting robots and avoiding the 'big boss' Evil Otto (which, bizarrely, is a smiley face). Other than the lovely vector graphics, which I must have mentioned about 20 times by now, there isn't too much to say about the Vectrex port. I like it a lot more than the Atari 2600 port primarily because of the graphics, but also because it feels a bit 'larger'. I think on the Atari the robots are bigger and therefore easier to hit whereas the Vectrex version just seems a lot more spacious. I think the perfect version of Berzerk would be the Vectrex version, using an Atari joystick. There are plenty of homemade and hacked Vectrex controllers I've seen around the web, so I might try to do this in the future.

#4 Blitz

Get yer tackle out!

I'm not really sure what I can say about Blitz. It's an American Football game. Considering the very basic graphics used, the layout and the pitch are actually very clear. You are a team of Xs against a team of boxes. The yard lines are clearly marked, the ball is visible and the big goal-ish things are also there. I still have the same problem as I always do (which makes me remarkably underqualified for reviewing an American Football game) in that I have literally no clue what to do. I know I need to get my guy with the ball up to the end of the pitch, and maybe kick it over the big goal-ish thing. Pretty much like rugby but with helmets. But words like 'Safety' and 'Good' keep flashing up on the screen and I have no idea what they mean.

If I knew about American Football, I would possibly enjoy this, but as it stands it's just a confusing mess.

You get some neat little tunes when the other team gets a 'good' though.

#5 Star Castle

This one is like a cross between Yars' Revenge and Dingo Dile. (In fact, Star Castle has apparently been cited as an inspiration for Yars').

Next year I'm asking Santa for a backwards port of Crash Bandicoot on the 2600.

Well, okay, it's not exactly like those things. There's no streams of data flashing across the screen and nobody offers to make you toast (for better or for worse) but you'll see what I mean.

Basically, you have to destroy the enemy ship in the middle, behind it's concentric revolving barricades. However, if you destroy an entire circle of barricade at the same time, they all regenerate. This feature makes what would otherwise be an incredibly easy game into a real challenge, especially when you have enemy homing bullets to watch out for. Once you do break through all the barriers, you must shoot the central enemy ship, and you get whisked off to the next level with higher difficulty.

All in all your just a... nother prick behind some walls!

I can't quite put my finger on it but I really feel like I should be enjoying this game more than I do. It's challenging, it's fast and frantic, and it's definitely fun. I'm starting to realise that while the Vectrex's graphics are stunning, having the correct overlays to add a bit of colour to the games would probably improve the experience quite a bit. That said, this is a fun game and a worthy addition to the Vectrex's library.

#6 Cosmic Chasm

This is a weird one. It hit me as surprisingly complex for a game of this age, having a map screen and multiple pathways. The idea is that you are a drilling bomb-placement ship that is making it's way to the center of an evil planet to blow it up. You need to choose the best route to get to the center and blow away any 'planet protectors' that lie in the caverns on your way through, then plant a bomb and run back out through the caverns to the surface of the planet. 

Despite a slightly awkward control scheme (down to the slightly odd Vectrex gamepad) Cosmic Chasm is a
pretty addictive little game with a moderate level of challenge. Once again I need to praise the vector graphics, with large numbers of enemies on screen and fairly intricate room shapes. The Vectrex deals with this incredibly well, something that I can't imagine any other console of the time doing.

#7 Heads Up

Imagine if FIFA games had a wireframe-stickman mode. That's Heads Up. And to be honest, it's pretty damn good. I'm not geat at football games really and because of this don't tend to particularly enjoy them, but it's still easy to see that Heads Up was a pretty great attempt for the time. The control is fairly fluid, with buttons to change player, pass and shoot. I actually had quite a lot of fun playing this, but there are some shortcomings. The Vectrex being monochrome means that rather than having different colours, the two teams are you (the stick men) and them (the slightly less bright stick men, with a hard-to-see cross on their chests). This is not helpful. Also, you cannot control the goalkeeper, which is quite annoying. The AI isn't great and there's no offside rule or anything fancy like that, but Heads Up is a very solid effort, way surpassing anything I've played on the Atari 2600, or any cartridge based pong-like console. It would surprise me if there were a better football game available at the time, even in the arcades. I reckon it would actually be a decent time waster if played 2 player.

#8 Hyperchase

Dem trees.

Ever wanted to drive a car at stupid speeds despite the fact that it's turning is so sensitive that even nudging the steering guarantees your death? Well now you can! 

Hyperchase has potential. Like most Vectrex games it looks fantastic. There's smooth perspective shifts and fast moving images that just wouldn't be possible on other home consoles of the 80's. While the core gameplay hardly differs from the most basic racing games you could get on 'tv game' pong-ish consoles, there are a few differences (as well as, of course, the graphics.). Hyperchase has gears, changed via buttons 1 and 2, which can be hard to reach while steering. This is a well implemented mechanic but once in higher gears and therefore higher speeds, it becomes too easy to crash due to the finicky steering.

Hyperchase isn't terrible, but slightly disappointing. Anyone who bought this back in the day would probably have been annoyed that they didn't get the vastly superior port of Pole Position instead (#25 in this list).

#9 Fortress Of Narzod

Here's an intriguingly unique game! Fortress Of Narzod is a shooter, but a very odd one. Rather than just shooting a bunch of aliens at the top of the screen, as is most shooters of the time, Narzod has you shooting up a series of crooked canyons towards a fortress (which, yeah, aliens come out of, but bear with me).

Pew, pew, pew. Pew.

 "But Adam, oh, Adam! How does one shoot 'dem baddies if the canyon is all askew?" I hear you cry. Well, kiddies, the secret of Fortress of Narzod which makes it interesting is the rebounding bullets. I can't think of any other game from that era that uses this mechanic in the same way. Sure, games like Combat and Outlaw do use rebounding bullets but not in this sort of 'aimed-double-ricochet' manner. Because of this, you also have to watch out for your own bullets flying back at you, making Narzod a fun, intense and fast paced game.

#10 Polar Rescue

Polar Rescue is really cool (heh). It's also the first properly 3d first-person perspective game in the article! Wahey!

Normally, these games don't particularly appeal to me, especially old ones. These 'flight sim' style games just never really hit me right, but those on the Vectrex just seem cleaner and more fluid. Polar rescue sees you as the pilot of a submarine, presumably by one of the poles. The screen shows a radar which you use to hunt down enemy ships and a large viewing port. Air bubbles, floating rocks (why?), mines and enemy ships all look really nice and scale smoothly, as can be expected of the vector graphics. The opening and death animations are both very impressive and show off the power of the Vectrex's graphics .

I don't know whether I'm just not good enough at the game to get anywhere or if there isn't any rescuing to be done. It seems to just be roaming the waters shooting anything you find. If that is the case, it's a pretty basic game, but the 3d graphics are impressive enough for me to be happy with this one.

It's repetitive but it's quite fun.

#11 Rip Off

Gimme back my triangle! :'(

While being rather simple, Rip Off is one of my favorite Vectrex games. You control a little spaceship guarding a bunch of shapes in the center of the screen. Enemies come onto the screen from any side and try to nick them and you have to shoot them down. Once they're all taken away, it's game over. There's no super-awesome special attack or anything else tucked up it's sleeve, Rip Off is just simple fun.

#12 Scramble

For some reason Scramble always comes out super blurry compared to other Vectrex games.
Scramble is a great, great game. I actually had no idea that it was a fully fledged arcade game, having only previously played the Tomy LCD desktop game. Obviously, the Vectrex port is a vast improvement (not to snub the desktop game, mind you). Scramble plays like a mix of Defender and Gradius. According to Wikipedia, Scramble was once considered by Konami to be the first in the Gradius series.

Basically you fly over land and through a series of caves shooting rockets that take off from the bottom of the screen. You need to keep an eye on your fuel (the bar on the bottom of the screen) too, bombing fuel depots in order to refill, which makes total sense. Both this, and the constantly changing environment and enemies keeps Scramble fresh and entertaining. It really makes me want to play again and get a little further than the last time.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

SMS review #2: Alex Kidd in Miracle World!

Greetings!Welcome to the ball-bouncingly exciting second installment of my Sega Master System collection reviews: Alex Kidd In Miracle World!

I neglected to mention in my last post that Master System consoles were also interesting because some versions included a pre-loaded game. In the most common Master System model, the game 'snail race' could be activated by starting the machine with no cartridge, and pressing a combination of buttons. This was a very basic game in which you just had to get a snail from one side of a maze to the other in a time limit. Other models of the original Master System included Missile Command, Hang On or Safari Hunt.

On the Master System II some of the later models had Sonic the Hedgehog built in. Mine however is an earlier model, as it has Alex Kidd in Miracle World built in. Released on cartridge in 1987 and built-in in 1990, Miracle World is the first in the Alex Kidd series, and of those I've played, probably the best.

Alex Kidd in Miracle World is a colourful and cartoony platformer with certain somewhat whacky and bizarre elements thrown in. I can't say I particularly liked Miracle World at first. It might have been the slightly 'floaty' physics or the tiny range of your attack, but it took quite a while of getting frustrated before I really got to grips with the game's control system. Once you get the hang of it, it actually works fairly well although your character, the titular Alex, does suffer from 'one-hit-death' syndrome which can be quite annoying. For instance, using your aforementioned tiny  punch attack it can be fairly hard to hit some enemies, but seemingly very easy for them to hit you. This is all the more annoying because you are only given three lives, and no continues. Hardcore. However there is a cheat mode which makes things considerably easier. Pressing up and button 2 eight times at the game over screen allows you to continue from the beginning of the level with three lives again, as long as you have collected enough money. This makes picking up as much money as possible imperative to get anywhere in the game, otherwise you just get stuck going over the same few first levels.

Knob head more like.

Speaking of which, at the end of each stage you have to face a henchman who challenges you to a game of Janken (that's rock, paper, scissors to me and you) and you must defeat him best two out of three. If you fail, you lose a life. Lose all three lives, go back to the start menu. Ugh. It took me a few play-throughs up to the first henchman to realise that they always choose the same thing (I'm an idiot, y'see). So I had spent an hour or so playing over the first stage for no good reason. Harrumph. I'll admit, I had to look up the Janken choices to avoid the same thing happening again. As much fun as Alex Kidd is once you're into it, not progressing is not fun, nobody wants to play the same few levels for hours on end.

Once I got past this wall of dying, I actually started having real fun in the game. There's still plenty of frustrating deaths, and even without the Janken matches getting in the way I still got a bunch of Game Overs. Frustration aside, Miracle World becomes quite addictive once you've played for a while. It's quite hard, and especially with the aforementioned control problems there are a few platforming segments that are really quite tricky, but nothing that seems impossible. It's also quite gratifying in the way you get a sense of progression. You move through an overworld map through island, jungle, cave and castle, and the levels and enemies (mostly) reflect this in a very colourful and inviting way. Sure, there's a few out of place enemies, like the little lettuce-looking monsters in the caves, or the fires inexplicably covering half of the castle, but they help give the game a bit more of its bizarro character. Just by the graphics of Miracle World you'd think it would be a kids game, but the difficulty says otherwise. Maybe I'm just really bad at it though.

The variation of transport also help keep Miracle World from becoming stale. Alex can not only run, jump and swim like any other platforming hero, but also ride a motorbike, sail a canoe or fly a helicopter. You can buy these in certain shops throughout the game but they aren't essential, adding a bit of replayability. One area traversed in a helicopter is far different to the same level by foot.

I'm aware that these tales of helicopters and lettuce men and rock, paper scissors matches seem pretty nonsensical, but it all makes sense when you hear the story. You have to save your brother from this castle because he's been kidnapped (or, KIDD-napped HAUAHUAAHAHAUAHA!) by the evil Janken, who wants to force everyone to play rock, paper, scissors or something. Somehow beating up loads of fish, birds and frogs is going to help you get him back. Oh, and you have to eat a burger at the end of each level. Story telling genius. I really don't know what the story is, and I don't really care. Alex Kidd in Miracle World is an immensely frustrating but beautifully colorful jump n' punch (I'm totally coining that phrase, btw.)  If you can exercise extreme patience, its an odd but interesting experience. If you can't, you're missing out, but there are plenty of better 8-bit platformers out there. Alex Kidd in Miracle World is good, but it ain't no Mario.

Cheers for Reading,
Dusty Old Games.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Hello again! & Sega Master System Collection review #1: Action Fighter!

Hello all!

Its been a while. Like really, a bloody long time, but I made a new years promise to myself that I would get back to writing reviews. I know it's the end of January, but hey. LET US REVIEW!

I'm setting myself a task here, to review every Sega Master System game I own (don't worry, it's nothing like complete, we're talking ~50 games) in order to get myself back into regular writing and also to force myself to play one of my favorite consoles that I really don't make enough time for. 

Uni work must come first unfortunately, but I'm sure I can cut out some procrastination and squeeze in some awesome video game reviews instead!

Here's to getting this bloggy thing back on the road! Cheers!

A brief introduction to the SMS:

The Sega Master System, as I'm sure most of you are aware, was Sega's first cartridge based home video game console to have a worldwide release, and was one of the few major competitors to Nintendo's NES system in the 8-bit era. There had been the previous Sega SG-1000 released only in Japan and Australia/New Zealand, and it's successors the SG-1000 II and SG-3000, which were just improvements on the original model. The SG-3000 had a built in keyboard and worked more like a computer than a stand alone games console.

In 1985 came the Sega Mark III, a true home console with backwards compatibility with most of  the SG series, which served as the basis for the Master System.

Masterfully crafted by Sega

The Master System was released in the UK and Europe in 1987 with the above design. One quirk of the original Master System model is the ability for it to read both cartridge and card based games. Sega had first introduced the card game media type with the SG-1000 and a 'card catcher' peripheral, the Master System's built in card reader was almost identical. Unfortunately, I will be reviewing the games on my Master System II, which lacks the card reading ability.

Surely that's a card-inal sin, right? right!?

Fortunately, however, a) I don't own any card based games at the moment; and b) the later Sega Mega Drive has backwards compatibility with the Master System via a Base Convertor peripheral which does have a card slot, and I happen to have one. Noice.

Anyway, enough about the history of the console. It was Sega's answer to Nintendo's NES and it was a bit nifty. I never had any experience with one as a child, but in the last few years I've become attached to it. Sure, I play my NES more but there's something special about this, too. It might be the squishy d-pad, or the annoyance of having to get up and press pause on the machine rather than on the controller (why?), but there's something about this console that plays a jammin' riff on my heartstrings, and hopefully I'll get that across in these upcoming reviews. It seems to make sense to start at the beginning of the alphabet, but whether I actually do this series in alphabetical order remains to be seen.

Without further ado, here's #1!