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 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 The Last V8 (C64)

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…