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 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.

Playing Killer Cobra (Amstrad CPC)

Released in 1987 for the Amstrad CPC by budget publishers Mastertronic and written by Peter Wiseman, Killer Cobra is a horizontally scrolling shooter where the player takes control of the titular helicopter to blast their way through well-defended caverns in search of a priceless treasure and early retirement. Ah… the 1980s where video game stories were there to fill a bit of space on the cassette inlay and it really didn’t matter if you actually read them.

Killer Cobra is basically a loose clone of Konami’s coin-op Super Cobra from 1981, but played with the fast forward button permanently held down, so a background hazard can completely cross the screen in under a second. That doesn’t leave much in the way of reaction time so, to begin with at least, most players will have to work through the frustration of repeatedly slamming helicopters into walls as a result. But given some practise and most likely a little memorisation, it’s possible make some progress through the stages.

There aren’t any power-ups to worry about but the Cobra does have a fuel gauge which ticks down at an alarming rate that, for reasons lost in the mists of time or at least Konami’s design documents, can be topped up by bombing fuel dumps on the ground – labelled with the word “oil” in Killer Cobra – which are defended by ground-to-air defences, airborne nasties and other facilities which are worth blasting to smithereens for a few points as well.

The background graphics and sound are primitive especially considering the year of release – a pounding in-game tune really wouldn’t have gone amiss here – but the sprites are reasonable and the package as a whole still has a certain charm.. The perilously steep learning curve aside, it certainly gets the adrenalin going during play – this is one of those games where getting into “the zone” and flying by instict really works – and has that elusive “one more go” factor, although some players will need a bit of a lie down in a dark room with some soothing music after a couple of sorties.