One of the facts about Spectrum gaming that seems to stick in people's minds that that the Spectrum Robocop game sat at the top of the UK gaming charts for a whole year. I was fourteen when Robocop (both the game and the movie) came out and I genuinely haven't experienced anything like the mania that surrounded it ever since. If you haven't seen it - the original, not that godawful remake - then you have missed the greatest movie ever made. Robocop is a movie for real men, it pulses testosterone from every pore and, at the time of release, it was the most f-bomb laden film that we kids ever got our hands on. The computer games were excellent too and they came out in that age where there were real differences between what the different home computers and consoles were capable of. There was an actual coin-operated arcade machine that was used as the basis of the Amiga and Atari ST versions, although what emerged on these formats was quite different, and on the Spectrum we got a sort of tough, scrolling platformer which was rendered in monochrome and clearly took some inspiration from the Amiga version, but was actually a very different game and was much more playable. Hence why it took its place at the top of the charts for so long.
Now why am I talking about Robocop so much in a review of Metal Man Reloaded? I suppose it's because Metal Man Reloaded is the same "sort" of game. You play a futuristic-looking cyborg and some of the nasties look suspiciously like Robocop's nemesis, the ED-209 robot. You also stomp around blasting, collecting weapons and trying to reach an exit door to complete each level. There are quite a number of additional features and the game is much, much harder, but overall Metal Man felt like familiar territory to me, a re-treading of the excellent Robocop game. A Robocop game for a new generation of Spectrum fans... And yet, for all of its upgrades and all of its colour, it's more evenly matched than actually superior.
Metal Man Reloaded is clearly what you might consider a Spectrum AAA release. It's available in six languages including English and the sprites and general finish of the game is top notch. Starting the game reveals a desolate cityscape in which former police officer Matthew Cranston, aka Metal Man, is situated. He carries a giant bazooka which he can aim either forward or diagonally. There is also a scenario to Metal Man Reloaded which informs you that Matthew Cranston is the man on the ground, but is actually part of a bigger team. Encouraging words from his teammates - and rather less encouraging ones from his adversaries - occasionally flash up at the bottom of the screen as he makes progress.
As you move Cranston, the screen scrolls in four directions, keeping him in the centre at almost all times. There are six levels in which the missions vary. In level one the mission is to find six pieces of a computer chip, plug it into a computer in the bad guys' warehouse (to deliver a "virus") and then get to the exit door. There are a number of adversaries whose goal is to make this as difficult for you as possible, and they stream in from all directions too. Indeed, Metal Man Reloaded isn't one of those games where you can learn when any particular adversary will attack and then beat the level every time (Robocop was). The enemies seem to be generated almost randomly - you get brief pauses followed by an onslaught. Sometimes this even extends to when the game starts, meaning some games start in relative tranquillity and you have ten seconds or so before you encounter your first patrolling soldier, while others see you having to fend off three cyborgs within the same period. One of your team-members helpfully informs you "Don't Stand Still!" when you're taking damage.
This is actually good advice, because it doesn't seem to matter what playing strategy you employ to make it through Cranston's missions, he will always take damage points... but there are many reasons why he'll take a lot more of them if you don't keep moving. Firstly, there's the size of the sprites. Put simply, they're huge. Both Cranston and the many enemies are about 1.5 times the size you might reasonably have expected them to be (to comfortably fit the Spectrum's small 256 x 192 playing area). Secondly, bad guys attack mercilessly - you can go from an empty screen to three different hoodlums intent on your destruction in a single second. Thirdly, you cannot easily get Cranston out of the line of fire of most enemies. You can duck, but their bullets will still hit you. What you can't do is jump, which really feels like an omission on the developer's part. And very oddly the bullets in Metal Man pass through walls, meaning that you can be shot from an adjoining 'room', and take out a bad guy in there too. Only moving around seems to mitigate being shot every few seconds, and the reason that it works is down to the big sprites making the playing area so cramped that you can scroll a shooter off-screen by walking in the opposite direction.
You also need to be careful of foreground elements that can explode. Your way can be blocked by a barrel and a few hits from your bazooka will result in it, in quite an impressive effect, exploding into pieces. The problem is that these pieces are deadly too, so you need to remember to keep some distance from each barrel and, once it blows, retreat quickly in the opposite direction. Although there are First Aid kits available, these are not placed at very regular intervals, so proceeding through Metal Man Reloaded is very much about trying not to lose a lot of energy. When your energy hits zero, you go all the way back to the very beginning of the current level.
The environment is basically a warehouse connected by a number of lifts - but one where you can also interact with some background graphics (i.e. computer terminals) and where there are many aesthetic background graphics. Although this looks very impressive, it can be confusing for a player. There are stairs, for example, but these cannot be climbed or descended; in Robocop you used identical stairs to go up and down to other platforms. To pick up items you have to press the Down control whilst standing directly on top of them; again, this works, but you might well mistake a background detail for a power-up and waste time trying to take it when you can't. The bad guys can use the lifts too, and they have this nasty habit of coming up to your level with all guns blazing. Again, with no jump control, if they loose off a few bullets at your feet, you cannot but take the hit.
That's not to say that you cannot get further by using some strategies. You will quickly learn that some bad guy types are tougher than others, that you can duck to avoid some bullets and that if a bad guy is shooting from you from overhead, you can run backwards and forwards to avoid his bullets. However, playing the game in such a defensive way ultimately feels like a waste of time because all of your conserved energy can be just as easily wiped out if luck decrees that a few screens to the right you'll be simultaneously attacked by a group of henchmen from three different directions.
Something that is also very different about Metal Man when compared to the classic Robocop is that there's a lot more colour. Robocop was in monochrome whereas Metal Man is very colourful. Obviously the Spectrum is a peculiar machine for colours simply due to its architecture. Metal Man Reloaded does its best to present an attractive, colourful display and it succeeds for the most part. The combination of the very large sprites and the very bold colours gives the game a striking look, to be sure, and allows for a successful hit to flash the target red so you can confirm that you actually hit it. However, it's also a bit too colourful for what seems to be a very gritty narrative about Government corruption and Cyberpunk-style vigilante justice.
Surprisingly, it's mostly silent (apart from a few shooty effects). There's no thumping AY music - a staple of even some of the most basic Spectrum games being released at the moment - and the English translation isn't great. It starts off by announcing "Ready To Mission" rather than "Ready For Mission", and there are similar gaffes in the cutscenes and radio messages in the bottom panel.
Overall, it's a bit of a flawed masterpiece. There's no denying that it's a great piece of work - there are power-ups like shields that provide visual effects that I'd never seen attempted on a Spectrum before, and there's the odd inclusion that you don't expect, such as the abandoned vehicles you can straddle and fly on to otherwise unreachable platforms. But the incredible odds stacked against your progress plus that cramped playing area mean that, whilst in paused screenshots it looks amazing, it can become frustrating. I suspect many gamers will never get off the first level, even on the lowest difficult setting. And, as for the harder difficulty settings - ha, forget it!
Metal Man Reloaded is one of those "we made a new version" games, a bit like The Dark 2016. Like you may have already guessed, the original game was Metal Man which came out in 2014. I haven't played that (yet) so I can't compare the two in this review. However, this Reloaded version has been picked up by both Monument Microgames and Bum Fun for physical release. Is it worth snapping up a copy? Well, yes, on balance it probably is. Despite being cramped, it all reacts well, and the myriad of things packed into it mean it might frustrate you, but are unlikely to bore you. You also have to admit it's gorgeous to look at. And what's that, you say, you're a Robocop fan too? Well, Metal Man Reloaded will also scratch an itch you never knew you had (and maybe remind you to watch the movie again too).