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.

Playing Humanoid (Atari 8-bit)

Despite the house currently being in chaos and the room I use as an office having been dismantled there’s still been a little time for some gaming recently. So I’ve been playing Humanoid on the Atari 8-bit, a scrolling shoot ’em up released in the early 1990s. The gameplay doesn’t really offer much in the way of frills, just seeing the player guiding their craft through increasingly narrow spaces in the landscape whilst avoiding contact with enemies which drift across the screen, occasionally changing speed to make things more difficult.

There are also destructible walls to blast a path through and laser gates which need to be temporarily disabled by shooting the nearby control units, so the player has quite a bit to keep an eye on which can rob them of a precious life. At the end of each level is a boss stage where a static mothership sits on the right side of the screen and peppers the player with bullets; this repeats but doesn’t seem to change in difficulty as the game progresses, but dying doesn’t have an effect on the lives counter and it’s worth slogging through for the cool explosion and extra ship awarded at the end.

The backgrounds and player sprite might look familiar to C64 gamers because they were lifted wholesale from Hugh Binns’ budget blaster Subterranea – even the code for decompressing the backgrounds seems to have made it across – whilst Mirax Force on the Atari 8-bit seems to have donated its enemy sprites to the cause. This “borrowing” of assets for a commercial title has happened a few times on the Atari 8-bit and I’ve previously spotted graphics lifted from Lethal Zone, Task 3, Uridium, Tangent, Hawkeye and Stormlord (the latter two used by the same Atari game, Hawkmoon) amongst others. Here’s what Subterranea looks like for reference:

And, although there are other games like Astromeda which work in a similar way as regards in-game sprites, Humanoid presumably looks to Mirax Force for inspiration on that front too. In this case the player craft is using two players and all four missiles to build a twelve pixel wide object, leaving just the two remaining players for all of the nasties so only one of them can exist on a horizontal row with the player and everything just moves right to left without any changes to the vertical position to avoid conflicts. A few people these days seem to feel that the limitations make this technique somewhat “cheap” but it’s a good starting point for a newly-minted coder at least and can still make for a fun to play game.

The game is does have some issues though; there’s what appears to be either a bug – or potentially a fault in the cracked version online – which will occasionally cause the player’s gun to “jam” for short a while and the collision detection is stricter than Subterranea too so getting through some of the already tricky-to-negotiate gaps is more difficult. Enemy spawning also seems to be random as do the speed changes made whilst they travel across the screen and the sudden changes in speed; that’s not a bad thing in itself but makes avoiding obliteration even harder, especially since the exploded ships continue moving and explosions are also fatal.

Humanoid is an average shooter but one I’ve always had fun with personally, although I possibly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone not looking for a challenge since it doesn’t take many prisoners on the difficulty front and some of the deaths can be pretty cheap, even more so than the game it lifts elements from. With a little tweaking it could’ve been less frustrating to play and some bespoke graphics probably wouldn’t have gone amiss as well, but what’s there is still worthy of at least some attention.