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.

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.