Playing Laser Gates (Atari 8-bit)

The story behind Imagic’s 1984 release Laser Gates is as old as time itself – an advanced race builds super computer and tasks it with protecting them by giving it a reality-destroying device as the ultimate deterrent, but said computer develops a glitch that in turn threatens the entire universe so a lone pilot must fly deep into the belly of the electronic beast to save the day. This mission takes place in a series of horizontally scrolling caverns which are populated by defensive craft, destructible walls and the titular gates which either open and close around their centre or have an aperture to fly through which bounces up and down.

What makes Laser Gates unusual is how complicated it is for a fixed speed scrolling shooter; the player is issued just the one shielded craft so there’s a power gauge for that in the status area, but it’s accompanied by a second bar for the current energy level which constantly decreases during play and will need to be topped up around halfway through each stage. The controls are also surprisingly involved, with the ship pointing and firing either left or right based on the joystick input and, if the player feels brave, being able to nudge the scrolling forwards by “pushing” on the right hand edge of the playfield.

A few features seem to have been lost in translation from the Atari 2600 original where there are ground bases on both scrolling landscapes and a third variant of laser gate which is solid but flashes on and off to allow the player to pass, but that doesn’t detract too much from the overall experience. Laser Gates isn’t the kind of game where you just settle down for a quick five minute blast however – in fact the ship’s shields will take a couple of minutes of abuse even if the player hits fire and wanders off to the point where running out of energy becomes a more immediate concern – and it’s fair to say it’s repetitive since nothing really changes between stages, but that doesn’t stop it being lots of fun when players find themselves properly “in the zone”.

Playing Armourdillo (C64)

The planet of Mobanti was a peaceful world without words for “war” or “destruction” in their language before the human race came visiting. Now it’s peoples have to learn at least some of the ways of war in a hurry and, after sending mostly unsuccessful spies into the enemy camp, a few secrets to creating weapons were discovered that could be merged with the more organic Mobantian science to form the Armourdillo, a hybrid of mutated animal and advanced machine which potentially has the firepower to protect itself from humanity’s onslaught. Think Dalek, but significantly larger and more friendly.

The first live combat sortie for this new armoured vehicle is primarily a rescue mission where, within a given time limit, a quota of life pods containing survivors of the ongoing war must be collected from behind an energy shield at the left side of each play area and ferried across the hostile scrolling environment to the safety of an escape tunnel to the right. Horizontal controls on the joystick tell the Armourdillo which way to move while up and down rotate the gun turret between four positions, allowing it to take out ground- and air-based enemies which drain the vehicle’s shield on contact. Learning the controls and how to aim the weapon accurately are both vital survival skills on Mobanti and will take some practise to master.

Released exclusively on the C64 by the recently formed budget publishers Codemasters, this was a one person project from Giulio Zicchi – his name even appears front and centre on the cassette inlay’s artwork – who wrote the code, drew the graphics, composed the theme tune, sung the… you get the idea. It’s nothing to write home about on a technical level -scrolling a small window of that size is relatively easy and the static starfield isn’t well implemented despite Uridium having done it better the previous year – but the music is great especially the in-game tune activated by pressing F1 during play, the graphics are pretty reasonable too and the gameplay itself proves fun if challenging in part due to the way the Armourdillo itself has to be steered.

In fact I remember this being quite a contentious title within my circle of friends back in the day; I liked the unusual control scheme at the time but not everybody agreed, feeling it was clunky and unresponsive especially when changing direction. Looking at it again now it’s pretty easy to see where those opinions were coming from – despite playing it for a few days for this post I’m still getting my arse handed to me near the end of level 3 – but I still feel that the system is flawed but workable overall and makes sense in context even if I don’t feel comfortable recommending this game to shoot ’em up fans without a few caveats because of it.

Playing Voidrunner (C16)

One of Jeff Minter‘s early successes was Gridrunner, a Centipede-inspired spot of blasting which was originally written for the unexpanded VIC 20 and later ported to a cluster of other systems. It was followed by a second game in the “Droid Wars” series called Matrix which again originated on the VIC but required extra RAM that was used for improved visuals and to graft in new gameplay elements. The third game in the series was Voidrunner which this time originated on the C16; publishing was handled by Ariolasoft – Jeff had worked with them previously for Batalyx on the C64 – and it shipped as a double pack along with the C16 port of Hellgate. That pairing might seem an odd choice but Voidrunner doesn’t merely continue where the previous games left off and, whilst it takes many cues from the previous titles, this third instalment also pulls in some inspiration from the game bundled with it.

The player is handed control of a shiny fighter which is accompanied by three support drones that fly in formation, either directly mimicking or mirroring it’s movement depending on the current stage. Enemies materialise within the playfield sometimes in waves or, with some of the trickier attackers, in small clusters and reacting to and indeed avoiding all of those moving objects as they patrol around the screen is where Voidrunner‘s challenge lies. Patrolling at the bottom of the screen whilst concentrating on enemies above the ship doesn’t work this time around since nasties can rez up pretty much anywhere and there’s also The Zapper to worry about, a beam that travels slowly down the screen and occasionally pulses to leave a bright and deadly version of itself behind for a moment which will destroy the formation’s lead craft if it comes into contact.

I remember feeling back in the day that this release was an unusual step since Jeff Minter had long been developing larger and more intricate games like Batalyx or Iridis Alpha by the time Voidrunner came out in 1987. But going for a simpler, single screen game does make sense since this was him acclimatising to the new platform and the gameplay offered up is still as frantic and enjoyable as either Gridrunner or Matrix. There’s also a C64 port of Voidrunner which was produced by Jeff himself – it doesn’t splash anywhere near as much colour around but plays about the same and the sound effects are a teensy bit meatier – which was published on Mastertronic’s MAD label and that in turn led to a couple of conversions for the Spectrum and MSX built by Icon Design, but the C16 original still stands as the best of the bunch.