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.

Playing Warhawk (C64)

I’ve been playing Warhawk quite a bit recently whilst testing various recording settings for YouTube, so it’d be churlish of me to not actually talk about the game itself! And it’s another budget shooter that I’ve got some nostalgia for, including a few shockingly vague memories of being at what I believe was a PCW show in London and seeing it running for the first time on Firebird’s stand; trying to play a fast-paced game in the middle of a raucous exhibition hall was never going to work and my arse was duly handed to me, but I was sold and picked up a copy as soon as my local software emporium had it in stock.

The obvious influence is Tehkan’s 1984 classic coin-op Star Force to the point where a couple of escaped preview versions exist (included in the Gamebase 64 archive, one under the development title of Proteus) which have similar end of level guardians; these disappeared for the actual release to be replaced by a final screen on each stage where the player is pelted with enemies which home in on them. Actually, here’s a handy hint for that part of the game whilst I’m here; park the ship over the second digit of the score from the left, hold completely still and just hammer the fire button – you’ll take a few hits doing this depending on how fast the enemies are moving, but it’s safer than trying to dodge, weave and blast.

The pace increases with each stage of the ten included and some of the enemies get more vicious in the process, but there are gaps in the madness since a new wave can’t start until the bullets for the previous one have left the playfield and players can “herd” enemy bullets to maximise that quiet time with a little practice. Because it gets so manic this isn’t a “one hit kills” kind of shooter and there is what at least initially appears to be a generous energy gauge which decreases a little with each hit. There’s also a power-up that starts appearing at level 4 which speeds the ship up a bit, gives it a faster firing rate and removes the need to constantly stab at the fire button, but this enhancement is only temporary and care must be taken to avoid shooting the items.

Warhawk‘s sprites are very nice – the titular craft in particular really looks the part – but, whilst the background graphics are reasonable, they did look somewhat dated even when the game was released in 1986. The Rob Hubbard soundtrack, on the other hand, still holds it’s own well is is certainly worth several listens; that’s best done on the titles page, it gets “remixed” during play since the lead channel constantly drops out to make room for firing and explosion sound effects. It might be an unintentional effect but having just the bassline driving away behind the frantic action works well especially when things really heat up.

Firebird published some very solid budget shooters for the C64 – and a few howlers like Force One, more on that another time perhaps – and this is a great example that starts off sedately but builts to a crescendo by the time the tenth level is conquered to the point where going back to start a new game almost feels like you’re playing in slow motion. And for those players who manage to loop Warhawk there’s always the challenge of playing for score to keep them going, the remaining shield is translated into points at the end of eac h stage and destroying all of the bases will earn an extra bonus.

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.