Dave E checks out two puzzle games, a malfunctioning spacecraft and a planet of death. Then he goes back to work in an office and ends up a slave to the undead. All in a day's work for the Retro Round-up
This month in Retro Round-up, it's all about the games and by this I mean it's all about new games. I have always been aware the Spectrum was the most popular machine of the Eighties but, since writing this column, I must confess to have been amazed at just how popular it remains. Spectrum owners have it as good as PS4 and Xbox One owners when it comes to new releases. Did you know that there have been over 200 new Spectrum games this year alone so far? That's an average of two per week, and reason the Speccy still tends to dominate this column.
In a nod to the retro magazines of old, I'm writing the whole of this month's article in the style of the "Software Review" pages from these magazines, and dishing out points out of ten for Graphics, Sound, Presentation, Value for Money (if the game is not free) and Overall. No "Soapbox" or musing on the retro scene this issue apart from a quick warning that, as reported previously, the central repository for Spectrum games (World Of Spectrum) hasn't had such a great year and so you'll find a lot of brand new stuff isn't listed there yet. Hence you'll find a few links to a google site which, for the time being, is simply chronicling the new stuff that hasn't made it to World of Spectrum just yet.
Other than that, however, there's no time to lose as we dive into each of these lovely new games...
I had heard nothing about Pixel Quest before I loaded it up. The instructions boasted of its addictiveness and stated "solve each puzzle to gradually reveal heroes and other famous pixel images from your favourite Speccy games, against an amazing soundtrack by top composer MmcM".
Now, from about two seconds into this game, I was hooked. This might have something to do with the fact that I spent my pre-teenage years designing sprites on graph paper and then inputting them into my Spectrum. Pixel Quest turns that rather tedious procedure into a challenge in its own right. I even kidded myself that, being familiar with the 8x8 CHR$ matrices of yesteryear might make me a natural at solving its puzzles. However, that wasn't the only hook factor. That music is every bit as "amazing" as the inlay describes and, from the moment the title screen appears, the collection of loud, raucous and bouncy pop tunes are almost works of art in their own right.
It's actually hard to convey the idea of Pixel Quest in text and, from screenshots, it will look like nothing more than a bland, computerised version of cross-stitch. Basically, you are given an empty grid. Let's imagine it's 12 pixels by 12 pixels (Earlier ones are much smaller). Across the top of each column, and to the left of each row, sits a combination of numbers. For example, if a row's combination reads 12, that means every pixel in that row should be turned on, hence 111111111111. Do that and the number 12 will dim, indicating that the row is set correctly.
That's easy, but if a row's combination reads 3-1-1-3, what is required is more ambiguous. Squares within the grid must be flipped to 11101010111. The problem with such a combination however, is that you have twelve pixels to fill, so either 011101010111 or 111010101110 will be "accepted". Glance up at the columns above, where you have similar combinations to adhere to, and you may be able to deduce which one is correct. Alternatively, choose one for the time being and then shuffle it to the other if need be.
Lo and behold, as you begin setting the rows and columns to the combinations required, a sprite will begin to emerge. The objective is to have each row and every column combination "accepted", meaning the sprite is correct.
Now if that all sounds Greek to you, then I'd recommend you visit youtu.be/qXKqWdLG_XA for a more illuminating demonstration.
The only small gripe I had with Pixel Quest was that, whilst you can move a cursor to plot each pixel, you can't "shift" left, right, up or down the entire row/column. This meant that, a few times, I found myself having to tediously move along rows turning one bit off and the next bit on. Also, although the sprites come from "famous" Spectrum games, I didn't recognise a single one of them!
Pixel Quest is a class act in all respects: engaging, puzzling, frustrating and mesmerising. Whilst the game itself is taxing in its own right, anyone who has ever designed sprites for the 8 bit machines will also love the warm feeling of nostalgia that accompanies each game. The phenomenal soundtrack, admittedly a curious ingredient for a puzzle game, lifts this game head and shoulders over other puzzlers on the Spectrum. Make sure therefore that you're playing on a 128K Spectrum so you get the full experience - the 48K version doesn't have the music.
Another new puzzle game to play on the Spectrum is The Return Of Traxtor, in which you must stop - at all costs! - the columns of coloured blocks that begin at the top of the screen from reaching the bottom of it. You can destroy blocks from any column if you align three blocks of the same colour (either vertically or horizontally), and you can grab the blocks themselves off the top of any column.
The skill of the game is in using the "stack" which is a "First In Last Out stack", familiar to software developers everywhere. You can, for example, pull a blue block from column 1, and a red block from column 2 but your next placement move would then have to affect the red block on the top of your stack. Your stack has space for three blocks so you should find that you quickly develop the necessary skills to grab blocks, temporarily place them on other columns to place/destroy others, and/or grab them back again if need be. The speed at which the entirety of the wall of blocks descends increases steadily until a block inevitably crosses a line at the bottom of the screen and signals game over.
Although it's not going to set the world on fire, Traxtor does have a nice feel to it, nice sound effects and a bouncy tune on the title page. The game itself is pretty addictive too - the only real problem being that, occasionally, it doesn't seem as responsive as it should be.
Monument Microgames' latest Spectrum release is Cray 5, a graphic adventure set on a spacecraft. Cray 5 is the name of the supercomputer that controls the spacecraft and, as you can probably gather, it has malfunctioned meaning it's down to you to patrol the corridors of the spacecraft. The game is flick-screen and gives you control of a large Spaceman sprite, equipped with jetpack. Your mission is to visit each level of the spacecraft, and flip all the switches that control Cray 5 to the �off' position. There are patrolling service droids scattered around that drain your energy if you come into contact with them.
As with Monument's other releases, £8.00 buys you a spiffing product - you get Cray 5 on tape, on a mini-CD and you get a glossy instruction book and inlay, all amazingly designed and packaged up. It's rather a shame therefore that, despite excellent sound and graphics, the game is quite a dull affair.
You begin by gliding around, and exploring a few screens. You then realise further exploration requires a door to be unlocked, so back across the screens you go to collect the key of the colour that matches it. Through it, you reach another screen where the situation repeats itself - way blocked by a door, go find the key to open it, etc. Unlike in the "classic" graphic adventures of old (i.e. Citadel), there's no variety to the puzzles. On top of that, the patrolling service droids are difficult to shoot and/or avoid, particularly the ones that glide horizontally back and forth in some of the narrow tunnels you must ascend and descend. If you leave a room and come back to it, all enemies are also reincarnated. It's extremely tedious.
Not, however, that this has stopped Cray 5 flying off Monument's shelves. Such is Monument's reputation for quality, initial stocks of the game were sold out within 48 hours of its release! A second batch is in the offing though. Check out Monument's Facebook page for further details. Or alternatively, Cray 5 is available as a free download from World Of Spectrum.
Red Planet is a graphic adventure and is written with The Mojon Twins' La Churrera utility. In previous articles I have waxed lyrical about how annoying I have found games written with this - Zombie Calavera and LaLa Prologue, for example - because jumping is such a hit-and-miss affair, and because colliding with a bad guy ended with the hero being randomly thrown about the screen. In Red Planet, I still hate the jump control but collisions result in the much more sensible loss of a life.
The story is the pretty typical "explore the rooms of the planet, collect the explosives and return to the first screen with it all to light the dynamite". And, to be brutally honest, the game itself is also fairly typical - avoid the patrolling nasties, jump from platform to platform, make a map, find the keys and open the doors.
However, what I really like about Red Planet is the amount of strategy that needs to be employed to play it correctly. You can run, jump and, once you've pick up a gun, shoot. But you cannot just therefore pick a fight with any tentacled nasty bouncing about in front of you. This is because most of them should be avoided rather than vaporised - acting like Rambo will quickly deplete your ammo and make it completely impossible for you to get past various nasties. Likewise, keys and doors require their own strategy. Jumping is, as I've indicated, a strategy all of its own.
With only seven lives, Red Planet might be a little too tough for the beginner but I found it very playable.
Who'd be the work experience boy? If you're not having to supply the mugs of tea and coffee to all those with "proper jobs", then you're having to shin up ladders, leap across gaping chasms and avoid the entire population of the nearby zoo...!
Hard Hat Harry is a very responsive ladders and levels game for the BBC and Acorn Electron, originally released in 2009 but currently enjoying a renaissance thanks to the imminent release of Hard Hat Harry 2: Son Of Harry. The aim is to collect all the mugs on each of the platforms and, no matter how far you fall, you can't be hurt. It has something of the feel of Chuckie Egg about it, but has a variable jump (the longer you hold down the jump key, the further you jump), more variety in aliens (gorillas, pandas, monkeys, etc) and sixteen screens to clear.
The colours chosen are odd. Bright cyan for the background, and deadly flying spanners in yellow in the foreground?!
Hard Hat Harry was written by Tom Walker, whose name you might recognise as the main author of the celebrated Repton: The Lost Realms. Unlike Repton however, he wrote it in just a couple of weeks rather than over five years. Were it not for his admission of this however, I don't think anyone would be able to tell.
Matranet is a French publisher for the Spectrum, and Request In Peace is a 128K only number. It costs about £8 and comes in a nice plastic box with inlay, insert and cassette.
There's a lovely textual prologue to set the scene of this highly original game, and it features a Cockney geezer who tries his hand at grave-robbing - only to end up "the bitch" of a bunch of undead zombies.
Each of these zombies respectfully requests our hero to bring a certain object to one of the graves in the cemetery. Handily, most of these objects are easily accessible in the crypt at the top of the screen. However, the graveyard is home to some slightly more active zombies too, who wander around both getting in your way and, on collision, throwing you around and swapping your game controls.
Theoretically, all you are required to do is to touch the grave where the zombie has his hand up, grab the item he wants and push it into his outstretched claw. You're also not restricted to doing things linearly either; you can touch all the graves with the outstretched hands to save a little time if need be.
For the first few screens, you find you have just about enough time to satisfy all entombed zombies before time runs out. However, from screen four onwards, things start to get much more difficult. Items in the crypt become sealed up, meaning you now need to play tag between zombie, a magic wand and the seal before you can even get hold of the desired request. When you fail to deliver - as you surely will sooner or later! - the zombie emerges from his grave as a demon. You can then charge at him holding the magic wand or see what he does next...!
The gameplay and music is excellent with themes from the movies Candyman, The Forsaken, The Thing, Alien and even Casper jingling along in the background. The only real gripe is that the small monochrome graphics do let the side down a little bit. Overall this is what every game should aspire to - a gradually increasing difficulty level with that "just one more go" factor.
Next month will, rather incredibly, celebrate a year of my Retro Round-Up columns. This year we've taken a look at no less than 75 new games for "old" machines - and, I suspect, we barely scratched the surface. For hundreds more new and old retro games make sure you take a look at my YouTube channel everygamegoing, which is where each of the above YouTube links redirect. See you next time!