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 Armourdillo (C64)

The planet of Mobanti was a peaceful world without words for “war” or “destruction” in their language before the human race came visiting. Now it’s peoples have to learn at least some of the ways of war in a hurry and, after sending mostly unsuccessful spies into the enemy camp, a few secrets to creating weapons were discovered that could be merged with the more organic Mobantian science to form the Armourdillo, a hybrid of mutated animal and advanced machine which potentially has the firepower to protect itself from humanity’s onslaught. Think Dalek, but significantly larger and more friendly.

The first live combat sortie for this new armoured vehicle is primarily a rescue mission where, within a given time limit, a quota of life pods containing survivors of the ongoing war must be collected from behind an energy shield at the left side of each play area and ferried across the hostile scrolling environment to the safety of an escape tunnel to the right. Horizontal controls on the joystick tell the Armourdillo which way to move while up and down rotate the gun turret between four positions, allowing it to take out ground- and air-based enemies which drain the vehicle’s shield on contact. Learning the controls and how to aim the weapon accurately are both vital survival skills on Mobanti and will take some practise to master.

Released exclusively on the C64 by the recently formed budget publishers Codemasters, this was a one person project from Giulio Zicchi – his name even appears front and centre on the cassette inlay’s artwork – who wrote the code, drew the graphics, composed the theme tune, sung the… you get the idea. It’s nothing to write home about on a technical level -scrolling a small window of that size is relatively easy and the static starfield isn’t well implemented despite Uridium having done it better the previous year – but the music is great especially the in-game tune activated by pressing F1 during play, the graphics are pretty reasonable too and the gameplay itself proves fun if challenging in part due to the way the Armourdillo itself has to be steered.

In fact I remember this being quite a contentious title within my circle of friends back in the day; I liked the unusual control scheme at the time but not everybody agreed, feeling it was clunky and unresponsive especially when changing direction. Looking at it again now it’s pretty easy to see where those opinions were coming from – despite playing it for a few days for this post I’m still getting my arse handed to me near the end of level 3 – but I still feel that the system is flawed but workable overall and makes sense in context even if I don’t feel comfortable recommending this game to shoot ’em up fans without a few caveats because of it.