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.

Playing Laser Gates (Atari 8-bit)

The story behind Imagic’s 1984 release Laser Gates is as old as time itself – an advanced race builds super computer and tasks it with protecting them by giving it a reality-destroying device as the ultimate deterrent, but said computer develops a glitch that in turn threatens the entire universe so a lone pilot must fly deep into the belly of the electronic beast to save the day. This mission takes place in a series of horizontally scrolling caverns which are populated by defensive craft, destructible walls and the titular gates which either open and close around their centre or have an aperture to fly through which bounces up and down.

What makes Laser Gates unusual is how complicated it is for a fixed speed scrolling shooter; the player is issued just the one shielded craft so there’s a power gauge for that in the status area, but it’s accompanied by a second bar for the current energy level which constantly decreases during play and will need to be topped up around halfway through each stage. The controls are also surprisingly involved, with the ship pointing and firing either left or right based on the joystick input and, if the player feels brave, being able to nudge the scrolling forwards by “pushing” on the right hand edge of the playfield.

A few features seem to have been lost in translation from the Atari 2600 original where there are ground bases on both scrolling landscapes and a third variant of laser gate which is solid but flashes on and off to allow the player to pass, but that doesn’t detract too much from the overall experience. Laser Gates isn’t the kind of game where you just settle down for a quick five minute blast however – in fact the ship’s shields will take a couple of minutes of abuse even if the player hits fire and wanders off to the point where running out of energy becomes a more immediate concern – and it’s fair to say it’s repetitive since nothing really changes between stages, but that doesn’t stop it being lots of fun when players find themselves properly “in the zone”.