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 Sea Dragon (Atari 8-bit)

A life on the ocean wave… or at least below it with Sea Dragon where the player takes control of the titular submarine. This game started life on the Tandy TRS-80 and was ported fairly far and wide – there are versions for the Apple II, C64 and IBM PC – but we’re looking at the Atari 8-bit version here because that’s the one I’ve enjoyed playing the most personally – although the Spectrum conversion from 2010 gets a close second – and that’s as good a reason as any.

The first and most common enemies are sea mines which lie in wait at the bottom of the ocean, slipping their moorings when the player is in range to drift slowly upwards towards them and not leaving much time to react. These can be torpedoed at any point as long as the submarine has a clear line of sight so the threat they pose is limited, but it doesn’t take long before they’re joined by other hazards including automated gun emplacements in the underwater caverns and ships which sit on the surface and drop depth charges into the water; the charges themselves can at least be shot to give the sub a little more wiggle room, but a close eye on the other enemies has to be kept whilst doing so.

Along with these direct threats to the submarine, there’s also an air gauge to worry about which is constantly dropping whilst submerged. This can be replenished by going up to the surface and waiting for the tanks to refill – one nice little detail is that this process isn’t immediate – although that can’t be done when traversing the underwater caves so spending some time at the surface to stock up before each of these sections is a must. Staying in one place for too long really does put the craft in harm’s way as the game progresses as well, so refuelling will become quite perilous.

Sea Dragon obviously takes a few cues from Scramble – the sea mines work in a very similar way to Konami’s ground-to-air rockets for example – but some thought has gone into reworking that design for the underwater setting and I particularly like how the fuel gauge has been updated. To my mind at least, the Atari 8-bit implementation stands out from the rest for it’s simple, chunky but still effective graphics and having fairly minimal sound effects overlaid onto the constant sonar pings, adding far more to the slower, tense atmosphere Sea Dragon has than in-game music would have done.

Playing Hyper Sentinel (Windows)

Time for some current generation, retro-themed shooting action; I’ve mentioned it in passing previously, but Hyper Sentinel is a bi-directional scrolling shoot ’em up for the current generation of consoles and Windows boxes – the latter being my platform of choice via Steam – where the player’s craft must destroy all of the ground installations on a space-faring Dreadnought before defeating its guardian and finally getting to watch the huge craft boil away into space. And if that sounds more than a little familiar, publishers Huey Games are basically a reincarnation of Hewson Consultants who, amongst many decent games and a couple of rather iffy conversions back in the day, published Uridium.

But when I sat down with Hyper Sentinel after buying it on launch day something felt… well, off. Most of the reviews I’ve read had described it as a “spiritual sequel” to Graftgold’s classic but it only took a few swings at the thing to realise that wasn’t really the case; Uridium‘s Manta has a huge amount of flexibility to the controls so players can constantly tweak their speed with touches of the joystick, but the Hyper Sentinel lacks that level of finesse and moving the controls horizontally just causes the craft to put its foot down in that direction if it wasn’t already doing so. The only option to tweak the speed is holding down the boost button to go faster for those times when the enemies or power-ups would be too quick to keep up with otherwise, but that faster speed also disables the main gun so must be used sparingly.

For the first week of on/off playing I really wasn’t enjoying it at all but, whilst writing that last paragraph earlier this week, something clicked; I stopped trying to play it like I would Uridium, properly got my head around how to use the boost and Hyper Sentinel suddenly felt more fun to play. Leaving a wake of destruction was enjoyable – even more so with the beefier power-ups – and some of the bosses became easier since I could chase them down. There aren’t background collisions to worry about unless players stray out of default difficulty territory and, rather than dying immediately, the ship gets ten shields which act as lives and can either be recharged with one of the items or just by hiding to avoid collisions for a while until they regenerate.

Personally, I can take or leave the neo-retro visuals these days in part because there are so many games going for a similar look that it’s hard to get excited any more; the pounding but not particularly memorable soundtracks are similarly reasonable and I think my less than sensitive ear is picking up some early Rob Hubbard drums in there too. But the gameplay is the most important part and that feels pretty solid and I’ve gone back to it a quite a bit over the last week. Granted, if I felt the need for a full fat Uridium-style experience with beefed up graphics and power-ups then the excellent Uridium 2 on the Amiga is the option I’d go for, but I do feel that Hyper Sentinel on its own terms is still a solid, playable blaster and I’ll no doubt return to it, either for the main game or to play the survival mode some more.