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.

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.

Playing Lazer Force (C64)

Lazer Force is one of the myriad budget shooters which materialised in the mid 1980s on the C64, hailing from Codemasters and programmed by Gavin Raeburn who already had a couple of shoot ’em up previously distributed by Alpha Omega and the bi-directional, horizontal blaster Thunderbolt, which was distributed by Codies.

The levels are divided into four parts; a very busy vertically scrolling shooter with tons of character bullets and fast moving nasties leads into a Centipede-inspired affair which is overlaid by more of the chaotic sprite-based enemies.

These high octane battles are followed by a significantly more sedate refuelling sequence where the player’s ship must be precisely placed on the docking bay of a mothership as it drifts back and forth across the screen and, regardless of if that sequence is completed successfully, there’s also one of those tunnel navigation games where the terrain is randomly generated; the player earns more points for going faster but risks losing control and mashing the craft into a wall before the timer runs out.

Whilst the first couple of phases are simple but often frustratingly difficult fun, the latter two feel as though they were just tacked on as an afterthought. Suddenly transitioning from thumb blistering action to the slow-paced docking stage and back breaks the flow of the game up. There are going to be players who enjoy that calm between each main assault’s storm, but I’ve always felt that the long break between action sequences dragged me out of “the zone”, which is problematic in a game where fast reactions are so important to survival.

The sound is probably best described as okay – it certainly isn’t one of David Whittaker’s more memorable tracks and too “jolly” for a shoot ’em up – and, although the graphics are reasonable throughout, some of the levels are a little sparse presumably to keep the character set use down to a minimum. But, despite having some flaws, Lazer Force is still a fun budget blaster; I got my money’s worth from the couple of quid handed over all those years ago and still enjoy playing it occasionally but, as old age sets in, that high difficulty seems far harsher now than it ever did to my teenage self.