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.
The end of the world has already happened and what remains of humanity ekes out an existence in fallout shelters, biding their time by monitoring the environment and, in one particular case, tearing apart a car and modifying it for this new, radiation-soaked world. The day finally comes when this supercharged and heavily shielded vehicle rumbles out into the post nuclear wilderness to explore and perhaps track down survivors, only to be surprised by an alarm going off on the dashboard signalling that a delayed nuclear strike is on its way. For any other car the journey back to the Undercity and on to the safety of the Sci-Base would be impossible… but this is The Last V8.
David Darling‘s Mad Max-inspired, post-apocalyptic driving game is divided into two parts, the first is a manic race through twisting countryside back to the relative safety of the underground city before the incoming nuke hits – the car’s shields are good but won’t withstand a full-on nuclear blast – requiring the V8 to be driven as close to the edge as possible despite hairpin bends in the road and fatal to the touch surrounding foliage. Once underground the pace settles down a little as the player manoeuvres through the tight, maze-like passageways to the Sci-Base’s entrance, avoiding collisions and trying not to dwell too long in the invisible but deadly radioactive zones which are a result of that recent detonation.
The Last V8 has always divided opinion in part because the difficulty is deliberately and frustratingly high, presumably to draw things out since a seasoned player can complete the entire thing in under three minutes. Meeting that challenge starts with learning how to properly control the V8, practicing until able to clear the first level consistently or at least knowing where the short cuts are – I’ve included the most common one as a bonus in the video after the main playthrough is done, along with the rarer second option that I tended to use personally – and then working out the path through the Undercity which had the least radioactive zones. Making the levels punishingly hard in this way is a cheap design choice, especially since there would have been more space for maps if the two low quality but reasonably long chunks of sampled speech hadn’t been included.
Despite the unforgiving difficulty I’ve always been fond of The Last V8 personally, absolutely loving the in-game soundtrack whilst playing it extensively on both the C64 and Atari 8-bit back in the day – the Amstrad CPC version is a bit of a car crash, if you’ll excuse the “pun” – and managing to complete the entire game on countless occasions despite claims of it being declared “impossible” online. I think there was actually a time in the late 1990s where the only map of the Undercity was one I made in ASCII and posted to Comp.Sys.CBM on USENet, although I sadly can’t find it now. This game does stir a few other childhood memories of living through the cold war with that imminent threat of nuclear death hanging over all of our heads that the game’s scenario is based around, although I’m not sure those are strictly speaking good memories…
Shaun Southern’s Kikstart on the C64 was one of the first high quality budget games I remember seeing at the time and that made quite an impression. It was based on the BBC television show Kick Start where motocross riders took on an assault course against the clock and the game shamelessly borrows many of the show’s more memorable features including the theme tune Be My Boogie Woogie Baby by Mr Walkie-Talkie. And anybody who knows the series or the game probably has that tune stuck in their head even if they didn’t click through to the video.
But that isn’t the game I want to waffle about today because, whilst there’s a straight port to the Atari 8-bit and an “enhanced” version for the C128 which added more levels, the C16 game which bears the Kikstart name is very different from the others. Yes, there’s a dirt bike and a scrolling course with hazards to manoeuvre over, but Kikstart on the C16 is more of an arcade style game than the slower, more methodical action of the C64 release it shares a name with. And that’s not a bad thing at all because it’s loads of fun to play with each stage being quite short but packed with obstacles including huge potholes, buses and trees to leap over.
Unlike the other versions, there are airborne nasties such as Shuriken-like spinning blades and clouds that occasionally darken and disgorge lightning. Timing is key to avoiding death, keeping an eye on the colour of passing clouds is a must to know when they’re about to strike and the blades need to be allowed for when using the trampolines to get airtime. There are also brightly coloured bonus balloons which, if grabbed as they float past, are worth a few extra points; there’s a rather sneaky stage where everything in the sky is red and even the pointy death stars can be collected.
I’ve already shown some C16 Kikstart love in the past by, amongst other things, disassembling the code and porting it to the C64 in 2007 and going back to it for this write up has reminded me why I put that effort into the conversion; the gameplay is enjoyable and offers a solid challenge by the later levels even if the collisions can be unfriendly at times – just have a look at the rather frustrating final death in the video whilst trying to jump onto what should have been a perfectly safe trampoline – but for a two quid game which is so entertaining to play I’m more than happy to overlook that.