Playing Lightfarce (Spectrum)

I’ve never really been a fan of Mastertronic’s platform shooter Zub; some of this comes from having played it first on the C64 – which isn’t a perfect conversion of the original – but even when revisiting the original on the Spectrum over the years it just feels empty, in part because the developers were working to a strict deadline and didn’t have the time to get it finished to their own satisfaction. But one thing it does have going for it at least in the Spectrum 128K incarnation is an Easter egg called Lightfarce, a parody of a certain similarly-titled blaster which had just been released and was gathering quite a bit of media attention.

There’s nothing to write home about in Lightfarce on the originality front; it has big objects moving around and multi-level parallax scrolling but the action is incredibly simple, with enemies pootling down the screen and the player having to either blast or dodge them because collisions will sap some of their shield. Everything updates at quite a sedate pace but, due to the quite erratic movement of the nasties, keeping the ship safe from harm is tricky and can get the adrenalin pumping when there are only a few hits left on the energy gauge. The craft wraps around horizontally – completely disappearing off one side before reappearing on the other – which can occasionally prove helpful whilst trying to avoid collisions, but there aren’t any weapon power-ups or items that restore shield power.

There’s a beefed up version called Zarjas – a misspelling of “zarjaz”, the catchphrase of 2000AD’s editor Tharg which publishers Reaktor would later “borrow” wholesale – which was given away on Sinclair User’s covertape a few years later; the colour schemes have changed and it now sports a titles tune and loading picture, but more important than those cosmetic tweaks is the gameplay which has been rebalanced for the worse, making the enemies less predictable and allowing them take more health away from the player on contact. I get that they had to “rebrand” Lightfarce once it stopped hiding behind Zub‘ skirts, but just swapping the name out and wedging in the tune before going to the pub for the rest of the day would’ve been fine. If they absolutely had to alter the gameplay for some reason, just changing the movement pattern for one enemy type would’ve worked better.

Lightfarce was knocked out in an afternoon, I suspect as a diversion for coder John Pickford in order to avoid burnout from the crunch of finishing the game it was buried within, and free to anyone who’d paid their three quid for Zub. It was never going to set the shoot ’em up world on fire of course, but is still technically neat with those large sprites and the parallax, with the action being a forgettable but fun distraction for the player. For me personally, this little game is more entertaining than the bigger product it was bundled with or indeed some later Mastertronic efforts like Speed Zone. Zarjas is the same in most respects, but both it and Lightfarce have pretty sensitive collision detection so the former is significantly more frustrating overall to play and less enjoyable as a result.

Playing Planet Search (C16)

Coded by Simon Pick – who is probably better known for various C64 outings such as Star Control, Nemesis – The Final Challenge or digital drum kit Microrhythm – and published in 1986 by Gremlin, Planet Search is a shoot ’em up for the C16. Despite that title the action is more about fighting for survival in hostile alien environments, although I suppose it could be said that the player is searching the planet for threats to destroy before being allowed to move onwards to the next.

The gameplay has, as might be apparent from the images and video, been inspired by Williams’ classic Defender but also heavily simplified; the only objective is destroying all instances of the level’s single enemy type and there aren’t humanoids to… well, defend. A scanner in the status area keeps an eye on active enemies – although it does fail if the ship’s shields are getting low – and there’s a twist, the nasties lay “eggs” either over time or when blown up that must also be dealt with by flying over them – presumably poaching them in the process with the ship’s engine – otherwise they hatch and release another nasty into the playfield.

There’s also a bonus stage where the scrolling changes to fixed speed and the craft needs to be guided through a warp tunnel to the next planet; breaking the warp field isn’t fatal despite what the manual might imply, but does send the player hurtling back to the last world which will need clearing again before the next attempt at leaving can be made. The tunnels appear to be randomly generated which means there’s no consistency in the difficulty level for this part of the game and, because the collision detection is overly sensitive and has accuracy issues, the first warp can repeatedly be brutally hard whilst the ride to the third or fourth level ends up being a piece of cake.

From what I can gather, Gremlin didn’t sell Planet Search as a stand-alone, instead shipping it with the solid C16 conversion of Bounder and that’s fair enough to my mind because, whilst it’d make a reasonable budget title, there simply there isn’t enough meat on this particular bone to warrant a solo, full price release. It’s still mindless blasting fun to hammer around the landscape whilst blowing things away with the ship’s cool-looking laser though, and repeatedly crashing out of warp and being stuck on one world doesn’t really get in the way of that.

Playing Mission Genocide (Amstrad CPC)

The Badstar Empire is on a mission to subjugate the people of your world, but a counter attack has been organised; the first wave of this assault is to do as much damage as possible to the little Badstars using a small but manoeuvrable spacecraft armed with lasers for airborne enemies and missiles to destroy the ground-based defences. The cassette inlay comments that this super secret project has been given the codename ZTB – Zap The Badstars… and yes, that’s deliberate because the original name of Paul ““Spindizzy” Shirley’s hardware scrolling 1986 blaster was ZTB, which in turn is short for Zap The Bastards.

The gameplay in Mission Genocide for the Amstrad CPC is fairly traditional scrolling shooter fare, using a fairly rarely employed feature of the CPC hardware for scrolling – similar to the technique used for the excellent Firetrack on the BBC Micro – and some neat tricks to speed up sprite rendering which keeps things very smooth and responsive. The ship is simple to control but rather cleverly puts two weapons onto just the one button; holding fire down shoots the main guns at nasties in the air – pressing space will toggle a handy automatic fire option – whilst missiles are launched when the button is pressed after being released.

There’s a power-up system too, with items being found in storage silos after they’re destroyed along with blobs of Astro Gloo which are needed to actually stick said items to the craft. Just grabbing everything uncovered will rapidly backfire however because, if the player accidentally picks up a black hole, said adhesive loses its stick and the previously collected toys are lost. The other item to keep an eye out for is the shield which is incredibly useful , especially when things get busy around the third stage – rather subtly called “Taking the Urineium” – where the ground bases start getting more enthusiastic about firing back.

Mission Genocide is on a couple of other platforms but didn’t have as much impact there as it did on the Amstrad CPC; the Atari ST version is much of a muchness that doesn’t really take advantage of the hardware and the C64 version didn’t make much of an impression in part because there were a lot of more accomplished scrolling blasters around when it arrived in 1988. If you think I’m perhaps being harsh there, Paul Shirley himself has previously described the C64 conversion as “not worth the tape it’s saved on”. But the Amstrad CPC version is solid stuff and, when our trusty CPC464 has been set up in the front room and left running in the past, it’s usually Mission Genocide that’s loaded into it.