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.