Sega's Astro Blaster was one of the very first arcade machines in the late Seventies. Before the advent of the home computer, men and boys would pump ten pence pieces into these cabinets and stand, transfixed by the cascading space invaders, taking their mission to defend the Earth very seriously indeed. Astro Blaster is a shoot-'em-up that forces the player to pace himself. Hammering the fire button will overheat the laser, and if the laser gets overheated it will refuse to fire at all for a certain period of time. If your laser bolts don't hit the alien formations at the top of the screen then you'll end up firing more rounds and, well, I'm sure you see the problem...
A few years ago, Astro Blaster was converted for the BBC Micro and we've now got a Spectrum conversion, although it's not from the same developer. The original arcade cabinet experience has been available to enjoy via the MAME emulator for many years now and I have to confess that this new Spectrum port comes very, very close to it. All that it really lacks is the futuristic sampled speech, with the spoken words appearing in a panel at the bottom right instead.
The game itself is a very variable horizontal scroller in traditional style. You zip left and right, and the aliens attack you in all manner of ways. You get aliens that bob about. You also get what seem to be meteor showers. You also get descending 'snake-like' formations that disappear off one side of the screen and wrap around to the other. In all cases you have two weapons at your disposal. First, there's your trusty laser-gun. You have to line up with an alien and release a bullet to strike it. Although the collision detection is generous (and certainly doesn't require pixel-perfect targeting), it's not a particular easy task because of the unpredictable nature of the aliens' movement. Rapidly descending meteors don't duck left or right, but other formations do, and they can hop out of range of your bullet before it reaches their position.
Secondly, there's the 'warp' which slows down all the on-screen action for about ten seconds. This is a very useful feature, as it allows you to position your laser base a lot more accurately, and gives you a much greater time to react to the bullets raining down upon you. A handy countdown tells you when its functionality is about to wear off.
What's really nice about the game, and what I imagine was a big draw factor back when it ruled the arcades, is the sheer variety of attack patterns. You never quite know what's coming next...
The overheating laser is all part and parcel of the experience but I find it irritating. Hugging the left or right side of the playing area, saying your prayers to the space gods until it returns to a safe level is tedious.
Matt Jackson has done what a lot of developers do when they release a converted game and assumed that anyone who will want to space Astro Blaster will be familiar with the arcade original. So there are no instructions. Alright, so it's not a particularly complicated game to get to grips with, but if you come to it cold, the overheating laser and the warp feature really would benefit from a little bit of explanation. There are fuel cannisters that drop from the sky in some waves too, and if you don't shoot these, you're likely to run out of fuel. Again, if you come to the game cold, you'll likely mistake these for projectiles that need to be avoided.
Overall, this is probably the best conversion of Astro Blaster that it's possible to program on the Speccy. It may all look a bit run-of-the-mill and the graphics and sounds may not be anything special, but, if you liked the original, you're certainly not going to be disappointed.