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…

Playing Kikstart (C16)

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.

Playing Chronos (Spectrum)

Before I start there’s a little wallowing in nostalgia to get out of the way; during my “formative years” I was primarily a 6502 bunny so never actually owned a Spectrum, but I did get a chance to play on one occasionally when visiting school friends. The first time I played Chronos would have been either 1987 when it was released or perhaps 1988 at my friend Simon Probert’s house and we spent quite a while taking turns at the keyboard to work through and eventually loop it.

To use its full title for a moment, Chronos: A Tapestry Of Time is a horizontally scrolling shoot ’em up from cheap software purveyors Mastertronic, was developed by John and Steven Tatlock – who were also behind the Agent X games – and features a stunning piece of beeper-powered title music from Tim Follin. The cassette inlay also has that “edgy” cover art style that Mastertronic were going for at the time with lots of “exciting” arrows and “torn” edges which was, presumably, considered to be “down with the kids” in the mid to late 1980s.

Turning to the game, things start of relatively sedately with just two randomly spawned nasties in play that travel across the playfield horizontally at different speeds but each new stage introduces another enemy type. Some of these can be little scumbags to, especially during the parts of the map where there isn’t much room to manoeuvre; the squares and Yin-Yangs in particular can suddenly change direction and twonk the player without much warning so really need to be managed before they get the chance.

There’s also a few places where the ground defences are positioned so the player can’t destroy them, forcing some dodging between laser beams as they toggle states or randomly timed streams of bullets. Whilst that can be sometimes frustrating the game makes up for it by being generous with the extra lives and, with some practice and a few moments of blind panic, the first loop can actually be completed with relative ease as I accidentally did whilst recording the video.

I’ve got a fair bit of love for Chronos, in part because of the aforementioned nostalgia but also because it’s a fun game which is solidly written and well presented, especially with that measly £1.99 price tag. There’s an Amstrad CPC version as well which is reasonable but suffers from “Spectrum port syndrome”, having a slower refresh speed overall and omitting the Tim Follin goodness – the only sound is in-game effects which are basic AY zapping and exploding noises – so the Spectrum version as the one to play of the two.