This game is a real oddity. Originally it did the rounds on the fashionable Amiga (where the response was indifference) and then on the Archimedes (where a game-strapped audience appreciated anything at all for their machine). The 16-bit versions were released by Infogrames, who also created Sim City.
Sim City garnered universal praise to such a degree that, if you still had an Electron by the time it came out, it was definitely going on your Christmas present list. Hostages, however, didn't really have any sort of reputation to trade off other than it was by the same publisher. So it went with the whole 'self-publicity' thing, splashing quotes like "Blockbuster!", "Brilliant graphics and gameplay!" and "Superb sound effects and tunes!" all over its cover art. I suspect this isn't even true for the powerful 16-bit versions, although I haven't played them.
Because, if they are anything like this Electron version, I wouldn't want to.
First things first. This game has a scenario. Terrorists have overrun an embassy in the middle of a capital city and the SAS have been called in to attempt to liberate those inside taken hostage. Everyone knows that these things usually go pretty badly, not only for the terrorists themselves but also for the hostages and quite possibly for the soldiers too. So this is your chance to see if you've got what it takes to bring the seige of an embassy to a conclusion where the only dead bodies are those of the bad guys.
To be honest, I think a lot of gamers, both modern and retro, wouldn't balk at that scenario. Sounds pretty exciting, doesn't it? And, for an Electron game, it sounds very different. The sort of game that might make for a blockbuster, in fact. And, oooh, whose name is this on the credits page? Why, it's Peter Scott, the very same man who converted Sim City! That's all shaping up to a damn fine list of ingredients.
It's a shame therefore that Hostages doesn't live up to its potential at all. It's not because it's sloppily programmed either. A lot of care has been taken with the conversion itself. But it's all wasted, because the underlying game simply has no charisma or playability.
It's in three stages. The first involves placing snipers in the area 'around' the embassy and is a scrolling game featuring the large sprite of your operative in the very centre of the screen. Only the darker colours of the Electron's palette have been used for both him and the background. Apart from a cyan searchlight darting back and forth over the playing area, your operative must rely on his skill and nimbleness to keep out of its way (It's controlled by the bad guys!). If he strays into its path, a shot will ring out and cut him off in his prime.
This game is actually very easy. You can walk left or right or press the up key to run in whichever direction you're facing. If the searchlight feels like a threat, turn and run in the opposite direction until you find a hiding place then hide until it's safe to emerge. Even better, considering you have three men and all of them need to be hidden in particular places, switch to one of them and draw the spotlight's attention away from him.
This level keeps your chosen agent in the centre of the screen and scrolls the background whilst an overhead map of the streets surrounding the embassy appears top-left. Sometimes you can run from starting position to "desired cover location" without breaking a sweat. Yes, there are commands to crawl and roll too, but you don't actually *need* to use them. When you've hidden all three agents at the positions marked on the embassy streets, the game loads in stage two.
If you thought stage one was somewhat easy, stage two is the other side of the moon. The task before you is to abseil down a smoothly-scrolling building and smash through the windows. According to the instructions, you do this by desending to the window, pressing Z and listening to the quick repeating scale of notes. When you hear the highest note, you should commence a swing and then use ? (down) to smash through the target window.
This is a decidedly odd playing technique. It means you have to have the sound on to play the level, and all levels of Hostages play a background tune. The Electron only has one sound channel so when you actually press Z you get a repeating scale of notes, punctuated in places with the notes of the background tune.
It's simply a cacophony of sound that it's hard to pick an individual note out of. Release Z and the solider indeed (quite impressively) swings to the left, but what the instructions fail to tell you is that you have to be *higher* than the window when you swing out, and so you have to position your abseiler in precisely the correct location that he will already be travelling down when the momentum of the swing brings him to the window.
If you have released Z on the "wrong" note, he may only swing out a little and, if you don't get to the X key in time to correct your mistake, he will lose his grip and plummet to his doom.
Stage three is where you finally get to kill terrorists and is a variant of the 3D maze game. You move along corridors, ducking in and out of corners and alcoves and, if there's a hostage inside one of them, he is immediately rescued.
However, your changes of success depend on how many of the six operatives haven't met their doom in the previous two stages. The terrorists have a habit of appearing completely unexpectedly as you walk down empty corridors and shooting you on sight, which means you don't know you're under fire until you start accumulating hits.
The stage is also a tad confusing because you can't switch from one soldier to another - they are just 'activated' sequentially.
Frankly, although the three stages may hang together, and even though the graphics couldn't really be done any better, the overarching game is ill-conceived and unenjoyable. Once you have conquered each stage once, you can play through the entire thing in about six minutes! This isn't nearly what "blockbuster" games are all about and it's surprising that the Acorn press didn't latch onto this at the time. To go back to the Sim City comparison, consider that building a fully functioning city takes the player a few days. This true blockbuster gives up its secrets very slowly.
And take the comparison further and compare the self-promoting "blockbuster" Hostages with the sublime Exile. Not only does playing through Exile take a whole day even when you know what to do, but gamers are still discovering objects, caverns and the solutions to its puzzles some thirty years after its initial release. That's a true blockbuster. By comparison almost every other game is somewhat poor, but Hostages particularly so.
As one of the very final Electron games, it's now quite hard to track down a physical version of it. If you do, expect to pay around £10.