Playing Zarkon (Amstrad CPC)

Here’s some more budget-flavoured shooting for this week; I’ve been playing a little Zarkon on the Amstrad CPC. Released in 1987 by Budgie, this is a cheap and cheerful horizontal blaster which employs hardware-based scrolling to give a large, colourful play area. A series of huge dreadnaughts slide past in the background which are defended by ground-and air-based enemies with the only respite being between levels or when things get a little too busy and everything temporarily slows down. Most of the nasties can be blasted, although a few will enthusiastically try to return that favour before they’re destroyed.

Enemy attack waves have been scripted so their patterns can be learnt by the player over time, although the actual position of each airborne nasty is to some degree randomised in order to make things more interesting. Whilst it’s tempting to play for score, getting twonked by an unexpected enemy or bullet sends the player back to the beginning of the level – more frustrating in the latter case since it’s easy to lose track of projectiles moving over the background if not concentrating – so playing it safe and keeping out of harm’s way is probably the wisest approach; learning the enemies’ running order for each stage will help greatly in that respect, as will knowing where the turrets appear and which directions they fire in.

CPC Game Reviews dished out an underwhelming overall score of five and described Zarkon as being “frustratingly difficult” and “cheap-looking”, but I feel that verdict is somewhat harsh; it’s definitely geared towards the challenging end of the scale and there isn’t a lot of variety to the gameplay apart from the occasional new craft on later stages or those aforementioned random enemy placements to mix things up each time, but it’s still reasonably well constructed and, considering the budget price tag, most shoot ’em up fans would’ve got their money’s worth from it back in the day.

Playing Starforce Fighter (C64)

Since it’s Star Wars day and I’m pretending that I need an excuse, here’s another shooty game… Starforce Fighter was released on the C64 in 1987 by budget stalwarts Mastertronic for the princely sum of two quid and I handed over my cash for a copy because I recognised the game from its screen shots (although we’ll come to how that happened later). The term “cheap and cheerful” springs to mind for this one and Mastertronic probably looked at it that way too since they didn’t bother commissioning new cover artwork, instead recycling the picture from a previous release called Space Scramble which came out for the VIC 20. Presumably they thought nobody would notice?

The instructions talk about Earth losing a galactic war and the player, as one of “the few”, being on the front line against an onslaught of drones, but basically it’s another horizontally scrolling shoot ’em up so there’s a joystick-controlled spaceship, chains of enemies to shoot and in this case the occasional power-up item which temporarily does things like disable enemy firing or beefs up the weapons. Each stage is large and topped off with an asteroid field – the guns are powered down at this point – and, once that’s safely traversed, a bonus stage with pods to gather for score plays out before the next level starts.

I remember spending quite a bit of time trying to wring my money’s worth out of this game back in the day despite some pretty bad issues; for a start it’s brutal and, despite being quite generous with the lives, will throw the player back to the beginning of the current, very long stage on death. This means that making any significant progress is frustratingly difficult and, whilst the early stages are set in open space, landscapes the player can collide with begin appearing as the game progresses to make things harder still. The cassette inlay claims that “the enemy ships generate shields by joining together” but, while this is an amusing attempt to paper over a programming issue in part caused by the C64’s hardware-based collisions, it means that many of the players shots will land but be ignored.

Usually I finish up by recommending a game like this with caveats, but in this case even my enthusiasm for the genre doesn’t quite stretch to that; yes I enjoyed going back to it – although rooting through half a dozen storage boxes this morning to find my original tape to check the instructions was probably just as entertaining – I wouldn’t consider it fair to inflict something this sadistic on unwary players. So whilst a few people might be able to drag some enjoyment or more likely nostalgia out of Starforce Fighter, I’m showcasing it more as a lesson in bad shoot ’em up design with a footnote about how important it is to get the bloody collision detection right!

As I mentioned earlier, I recognised this game from the screenshots because Mastertronic were the final publishers of Starforce Fighter but it was offered around to at least one other firm before that; I know this because, when one of the developers took the game along to a computer show in London and it was loaded on one of Audiogenic’s display machines for evaluation, I was stood nearby and snuck in to spend about five minutes playing it. Although Audiogenic didn’t take it, the coder Kevin Oxland also handled the C64 conversion of their bouncy BBC blaster Ransack, again with Wally Beben handling the sound.

Playing Ano Gaia (Spectrum)

Another week and another shoot ’em up… hardly surprising considering it’s me writing, but perhaps I need to go looking a little further afield at some point. Anyway, this particular blaster is Ano Gaia, which was developed by Simon Tillson (with some great, beeper-powered title music by Andy Mills) and published on the cover of Your Sinclair during 1992 so presumably the only thing preventing it from getting a full commercial release was only that it arrived pretty late in the day. The storyline that YS were provided with apparently talks about “pollution, luxury spacecraft, gigantic pirate ships which swallow up everything in their path and waistcoats” so can safely be ignored because the game itself is about flying a spaceship through scrolling landscapes and blasting anything that moves even if it hasn’t actually started to.

The ship starts off moving slowly and pretty much under powered for the job, so it’s very convenient that random enemies will leave a power-up behind when blasted. There are two to collect – a cyan one that boosts the ship’s speed or the red one which beefs up the weaponry – and passing over these items with the fire button held down will bolt them on. Dying resets the ship back to the start of the current stage and downgrades both speed and firepower by the equivalent of one item, but it doesn’t take long to build everything back up again.

Keeping the ship to one or perhaps two speed ups is best because it becomes surprisingly unwieldy at top speed, something which isn’t helped by the collision detection being unforgiving. There’s also a couple of rather cheap deaths to be found where the background splits with one path leading to a literal dead end but, for players willing to sit down and learn their way through it as would more often be expected of a horizontally scrolling example of the genre, Ano Gaia is enjoyable stuff and technically impressive as well.