Playing Lightfarce (Spectrum)

I’ve never really been a fan of Mastertronic’s platform shooter Zub; some of this comes from having played it first on the C64 – which isn’t a perfect conversion of the original – but even when revisiting the original on the Spectrum over the years it just feels empty, in part because the developers were working to a strict deadline and didn’t have the time to get it finished to their own satisfaction. But one thing it does have going for it at least in the Spectrum 128K incarnation is an Easter egg called Lightfarce, a parody of a certain similarly-titled blaster which had just been released and was gathering quite a bit of media attention.

There’s nothing to write home about in Lightfarce on the originality front; it has big objects moving around and multi-level parallax scrolling but the action is incredibly simple, with enemies pootling down the screen and the player having to either blast or dodge them because collisions will sap some of their shield. Everything updates at quite a sedate pace but, due to the quite erratic movement of the nasties, keeping the ship safe from harm is tricky and can get the adrenalin pumping when there are only a few hits left on the energy gauge. The craft wraps around horizontally – completely disappearing off one side before reappearing on the other – which can occasionally prove helpful whilst trying to avoid collisions, but there aren’t any weapon power-ups or items that restore shield power.

There’s a beefed up version called Zarjas – a misspelling of “zarjaz”, the catchphrase of 2000AD’s editor Tharg which publishers Reaktor would later “borrow” wholesale – which was given away on Sinclair User’s covertape a few years later; the colour schemes have changed and it now sports a titles tune and loading picture, but more important than those cosmetic tweaks is the gameplay which has been rebalanced for the worse, making the enemies less predictable and allowing them take more health away from the player on contact. I get that they had to “rebrand” Lightfarce once it stopped hiding behind Zub‘ skirts, but just swapping the name out and wedging in the tune before going to the pub for the rest of the day would’ve been fine. If they absolutely had to alter the gameplay for some reason, just changing the movement pattern for one enemy type would’ve worked better.

Lightfarce was knocked out in an afternoon, I suspect as a diversion for coder John Pickford in order to avoid burnout from the crunch of finishing the game it was buried within, and free to anyone who’d paid their three quid for Zub. It was never going to set the shoot ’em up world on fire of course, but is still technically neat with those large sprites and the parallax, with the action being a forgettable but fun distraction for the player. For me personally, this little game is more entertaining than the bigger product it was bundled with or indeed some later Mastertronic efforts like Speed Zone. Zarjas is the same in most respects, but both it and Lightfarce have pretty sensitive collision detection so the former is significantly more frustrating overall to play and less enjoyable as a result.

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 Firefleet (Atari 8-bit)

For a change, I’ve been playing that I didn’t really find myself enjoying; Firefleet was put out by English Software in 1983 and seems to be at least loosely based on Atari’s Caverns Of Mars. The player’s spaceship descends through tight and twisting caverns, avoiding unfriendly fire whilst destroying wall-mounted gun bases and destructible blocks in order to clear a marginally more safe path along the way.

Cutting to the chase, Firefleet is just too damned hard; there are tiny little gaps to pass through in the scrolling backgrounds and the collisions are painfully accurate. Similarly, the timing of the guns is erratic and they’re often squirreled away in corners where they can’t be blasted and, just to compound the frustration, smacking into the scenery or being destroyed by one of the defences sends the player’s craft right back to the start of the game… not just the current area but right to the top of the damned map! At least there isn’t a fuel gauge to worry about – Caverns Of Mars has one since it’s loosely based on Scramble – but that’s about the only thing not trying to kill the player here.

Firefleet could have been far more playable with just a little extra wiggle room in the tighter parts of the caverns or if the gun bases were consistent with their firing, but the chances are this was a case of the game’s coder MD Caballero becoming too good at their own game during the course of development, tweaking the difficulty upwards over time to match that skill level and subsequently making it too hard for us mere mortals. That’s something of a shame really, because it’s well executed technically and has quite a bit of potential if it weren’t so vicious.

I vaguely remember playing this one on a friend’s 800XL during the 1980s, but not how frustratingly difficult it actually was. Back in the day we didn’t have much money for buying games and needed to make the most of each purchase, so would probably have kept hammering away at it for quite a while before giving up. I did get some enjoyment after picking Firefleet up again recently despite the flaws, but don’t think that would be enough to keep me coming back; Caverns Of Mars offers similar gameplay but with a more reasoanble difficulty curve and greater overall sense of progression.