In EUG #67, we set about reviewing THE SAS SQUAD GAMES and casually remarked that we had, until that point, never heard of the magazine Acorn Computing which Stephen Scott originally submitted the games to. Well, we've still not gotten our hands on any paper version of the magazine but thanks to eBay, we did recently get our hands on a bundle of 5.25" discs all embossed with the Acorn Computing logo; one of these being Black Widow II, which is a game so good we felt it deserved its own review. Before we get into this however, let us just note that Acorn Computing appears to have run straight on from when the BBC magazine The Micro User ceased publication - even to the extent of carrying on with MU's volume and issue numbers! As with MU, the games carried also seem to be in most part compatible with the Electron as well (as is Black Widow II).
Black Widow II comes with a The Micro User menu hitched on its front, and several utilities included on the same disc, but it is quite evidently the star of the show. Time was when you would have paid £9.95 for a game of its calibre (in 1986), or at least £1.99 (in 1990) at your local car boot sale. Its name suggests its a sequel, although the first Black Widow must currently be on one of the Acorn Computing/Micro User discs that remain Missing In Action. The premise is a graphic adventure, but one with the addition of a gun, and firing baddies. It is a wholly machine code number, with a nice loading sequence and big recognisable tough guy sprites.
In the interests of not going over old ground (Everyone who has read this description probably already has a good idea of what the game is about!), your quest to "save the Earth from the evil black shadow" masks yet another "pick up items and use them in the right location to make progress" jaunt. You can carry two items at a time and, because this is not readily apparent from the instructions, you pick them up with SPACE and use them with SHIFT. Movement is by the ZX*? combination that we all know and love and the game was written by a chap calling himself James 'Dudley' Watson.
The sprites are very cool, perhaps not quite as neat as those in some of the best graphic adventures, but passable and intricate enough to entice you into the game. A particular talking-point is the large machine gun that appears in the status bar. Whilst its use is not explained, it certainly gives the game a bit of a Fireforcesque edge. The status bar also features a score, which increments on each dude you waste, and when you make significant progress in the game. Further on the right, there is also an energy bar and ammunition supply bar. These are a little unorthodox in that they include counters that tick down from 9 to 0 rather like the number dials on your cassette recorder. However, they do the job and introduce the variety that games of this ilk need against hardened competition.
The playability is good, with everything happening in Mode 5 at a fair pace. The collision detection is good for the most part, with all villains targetted from behind disappearing as soon as one of your bullets hits them squarely between the shoulders. When you attack them from the front however, there are startling differences. Some of your bullets just seem to get 'lost' en route as the enemy fires back. The strategy therefore is simple - leap over the soldier, turn around and take him out with a shot to the back! However, not really as satisfying as a murderous charge towards him with a liberal splaying of machine gun bullets, which is why we found ourselves disregarding this advice on many an occasion.
Scattered around the levels are medi-packs, bullets and keys. Picking these up (with the SHIFT key) can often prove a little fraught as you seem to need to have to press up against them or stand on top of them to do so. Sometimes manoeuvring into position can take a few seconds which is a bit weird (and not to be recommended if you are under attack).
You start on the planet surface but it seems the game has been laid out so that you can easily make progress in a rather small area, with the main exploration left for those who can demonstrate the requisite skill. As this is graphic adventure land, you can move freely in any direction (although you cannot jump from the top of one screen into the bottom of another) and climb up and down ropes. So far, the shooting guards and bombers are the only nasties we've encountered. However, as we've always been wiped out after collecting only the first two keys, that's not to say there aren't more types lurking within its confines.
Black Widow II is a great little game and deserves a much larger audience than it has probably had until now. However, in closing we should also probably note that this game is hard - and hopefully somebody is going to let us know that there's an in-built cheat (and what that cheat is!). Even with one, and rather like The Golden Figurine, the speed of the game and its various traps and nuances mean you are very unlikely to complete it without a solution and map. By all means, do try - but don't say we didn't warn you!
Black Widow II is just one of the newly archived discs in our ever-expanding Micro User catalogue. It really is incredible to think that a professional magazine was still supporting the BBC and Electron five years after Electron User bowed out. Indeed, if you consider that the BBC was born in 1982, that gives it a shelf life of over thirteen years! And there's yet one more thing that you should also consider about these latest acquisitions, of which Black Widow II is one. By the time Acorn Computing was doing the rounds, the contents of the companion disc were no longer limited to what could also be squeezed into the paper-based magazine in text form. Therefore for next to nothing you were actually getting a title that could easily have been released professionally, complete with loading screen, personalised fonts, and even multiple, self-loading levels. Black Widow II is just one example of this and we will hope to turn our attention to some of the other greats (New games like Helichopper, Omniscient, etc) in time for the next EUG.