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Retro Round Up

Dave E rounds off the year in style with a countdown of this year's best releases, a look at new games for the Nintendo and Spectrum and an announcement that heralds a new first port of call for any game you might care to name...

Reviewed By Dave E In Micro Mart #1393: December 2015 Special

The Best Of 2015 | Chrimblast | Alter Ego | Land Of Mire Mare | Every Game Going - Live At Last!

The Best Of 2015

Merry Christmas everyone! We're at the end of 2015 and I've reported on hundreds of new retro games over the past year. I'm starting this month with a countdown of my personal favourites of those we've covered, in descending order of preference, with a few notes of exactly what makes each game great (Check your back issues for more!). The number one spot goes the retro game I've played the most this year; the difference between the others is marginal at best.

10.   Invasion Of The Zombie Monsters (Relevo, Amstrad/Spectrum 48K/128K/MSX)
With an impressive array of developers and testers, Invasion is a fully-featured platformer with animated cut-scenes galore.
 
9. R-Type 128 (Easter Egg, Amstrad CPC)
The Amstrad received a souped-up Spectrum version of R-Type back in 1984, even though the machine was capable of a lot more. Easter Egg redressed the balance with R-Type 128.
8. Egghead Round The Med (Cronosoft, Spectrum 128K/ZX Vega)
The fifth outing for Cronosoft's Egghead isn't just a platform game, it's five of them, reached by navigating Egghead's boat to each themed destination. An astounding game.
7. Quantum Gardening (Cronosoft, Spectrum 48K/ZX Vega)
Quantum Gardening brings something absolutely new to the table; make sure you read the instructions before attempting it (which might be difficult on the Vega, seeing as it doesn't include any!)
6. El Stompo (Monument Microgames, Spectrum 48K/ZX Vega)
A platform game released shortly after Einar Saukas' wonderful fix for the Spectrum attribute clash, El Stompo takes advantage of the increased colour palette for a wonderfully wacky cartoon adventure.
5. Love Story From Titanic (Fun Forge, Spectrum 128K)
Take control of Leo and guide Kate into his arms by bashing colourful blocks to pieces, all set to bouncy re-workings of the soundtrack from the movie Titanic. A brilliant game, it's spoiled by a full title (Google it!) that would lead you to believe it might hold a nasty surprise. It doesn't.
4. Daffy Duck (Hi-Tec, Commodore 64/128)
With a backstory as intriguing as the game itself, the newly rediscovered Daffy Duck was bound to make this list. A great little platformer, if a little repetitive in places, we saluted the boys at Games That Weren't for finally giving this the release it so obviously deserved for the past three decades.
3. Rocket Smash Ex (Psytronik, Commodore 64/128)
Rocket Smash Ex begins by roaring "Get Ready" and then launches into the definitive version of Jet Pac which, if you've never played it before, was one of the classic Spectrum 16K titles of 1983. Almost compulsively playable, this game is worth every penny of its £3.99 price tag.
2. Splattr (Cronosoft, Spectrum 128K/ZX Vega)
A game almost impossible to describe in words and which looks terrible in paused screenshots, Bob Smith's excellent Splattr defies almost every Spectrum convention there is. Totally superb.
1. Pixel Quest (Einar Saukas, Spectrum 48K/128K)
And the number one spot goes to Pixel Quest, which invites you to patiently plot the CHR$ definitions of games of old cross-stitch style until you have successfully turned every vertical and horizontal number combination from yellow to blue. In any other puzzle game, the thumping bass in your ears would be distracting yet here it seems to complement everything perfectly. Yes, I've already lost hours of my life to the other games on this list, but to this one you can make that days!

Chrimblast (Spectrum 48K)

Chrimblast is a Christmassy shoot-'em-up game which happily reunites us with the R-Type style gun. That's the one where a quick press on the fire button gives a short burst of gunfire but holding it down releases something that obliterates everything in its path. The game starts with sampled speech booming "Chrimblast" and has a Yerzmyey soundtrack too.

The aim is to complete eight missions and the objective of each is to collect nine seasonal objects - i.e. presents, puddings, fruits, etc. These bob about in space, casually floating left and right as they descend towards your scout-ship which you can attempt to position so it's ready to collect them.

Making this a bit tougher are the aliens who come streaming down the screen and must be either avoided or blasted with one of your two weapons. Unfortunately, your bullets will destroy the collectables as well as the aliens; you therefore need to try and position your craft in such a way that you don't accidentally shoot the collectables.

There is some skill involved in this but not a great deal of it. Chrimblast gives you an insanely large amount of lives (Nine!) and does not penalise you even for blasting the seasonal items, hence its first few missions feel rather unchallenging and it's tedious to work through them more than once.

If you persevere, the missions do get tougher, and you come under attack from more aliens at once, with penalties for shooting seasonal objects being introduced too. From a very impressive intro however, it's odd that the game feels so undemanding; with the excessive lives, most players would be able to complete all eight missions on their first go! Three lives would have been quite adequate to inject a bit of a challenge to Chrimblast.

Nevertheless, if you're in the mood for some mindless, forgiving blasting fun, then Chrimblast will certainly fit the bill.

Chrimblast Scores

Graphics 7
Atmosphere 6
Presentation 7
Overall 7

Alter Ego (Nintendo NES)

It's not often that a game appears almost simultaneously on two formats as different as the Spectrum and the Nintendo. The systems are worlds apart in terms of capability.

It's even rarer when that game seems to have been released specifically, with a poetic nod to its subject matter, for those two particular consoles on purpose.

The game in question is Alter Ego from RetroSouls in which the central premise is "mirrored" reality. If you know your retro computer history, you'll be aware thirty years ago, the mirrored computer reality was the British with their hands full of Spectrums, and the Americans busy with their Nintendos. I'm bowled over by RetroSouls' marketing nous to echo its game concept with the history of the consoles in that sort of way. This is, however, what they have done.

And, on top of that, this two man team (Richard Armijo on NES; Denis Grachev on Speccy) have created an amazing platformer/puzzler too. At first glance a typical ladders and levels game, its short instructions reveal only that you will be accompanied throughout your quest by a mysterious, ghostly alter-ego. Your quest is simply to collect all the jellies from each screen. But as soon as you start to move, you'll see him - a spooky see-through half-man that glides through the scenery either horizontally or vertically, echoing every move you make.

He isn't actually your problem. The demon skulls that pace the platforms of each level, the bridges which collapse beneath your feet and the puzzles that will have you tearing out your own hair in frustration are Alter Ego's big headaches. The ghostly figure is in fact your key to outwitting each of them. By a tap of the 'Switch' key, you and your alter ego switch places. Which, essentially means that, instead of the usual "jump" key, you can transport to another area of the screen.

That's Alter Ego, exactly the same game on each format, with exactly the same layout of screens. You must run left and right, and climb and descend the ladders, avoiding anything that moves. If you're in danger, you need to position yourself ready to use one of your limited 'switches' - you and your alter ego then whizz across the screen to change places. You can even do this whilst falling or climbing ladders. The number of 'switches' you can make changes each screen, and screens do not scroll; what you see is the puzzle you need to solve - and sometimes you don't need to 'switch' at all! A cunning inclusion, that.

Having played both versions, the Nintendo version slightly has the edge over the Spectrum one, with a larger number of tunes, more beautiful sprites and some nice "Level Clear!" and "Game Over" Americanisms that RetroSouls decided us Brits didn't need.

Both of them do also suffer the same irks though. The first is that the ghostly alter ego and the boy you control are actually pretty similar-looking. It's easy to confuse the two and, instead of running the right way, end up running the wrong way as the "other" character...

Alter Ego is also very difficult - it has 25 levels but I can't get further than level 10 due to the perfect timing involved in outwitting some of the adversaries.

As Alter Ego came out at the beginning of the year, the ZX Vega also already includes the Spectrum version - so if you get one of those in your Xmas stocking this year, you can play this game (and, incidentally some of those featured in the Top 10) instantly!

Alter Ego Scores

Graphics 8
Atmosphere 10
Presentation 9
Overall 9

Land Of Mire Mare (Spectrum 48K)

The saga of Mire Mare is well-known in the retro computing world. The very short version of it is that Ultimate began work on it but never finished it, leaving all those who enjoyed Ultimate's other 8-bit offerings (Alien-8, Sabre Wulf, etc) to wonder what might have been. The longer version you can read on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mire_Mare

What we have here is not Ultimate's "lost" Mire Mare; instead, it's a wholly new game which its publisher, AGD Homebrew Games, calls a tribute to that unreleased title. The physical release comes in an oversized black slip-case box in identical style to Ultimate's classic releases, and the cover art and instruction manual are all lovingly done in the Ultimate style.

The game itself is an overhead maze game which, whilst nicely presented, is something of a mishmash of gaming oddities. You control Sabreman (star of Sabre Wulf) and your mission is to collect three magic jewels and throw them into the Well of Mire Mare. Strangely, you cannot pick up the jewels directly if you find them; instead you must be carrying the "pledge" (a random object found in the maze itself) appropriate to that jewel. If so, moving over the jewel will swap the two of them.

You move around the various locations by going in and out of doors, which flicks the screen to the next location. Usually, you have a few seconds' breathing space before enemies begin to teleport in. You don't have any sort of weapon when you start, so you have to defeat them (initially at least) by beating a hasty retreat to "flick-screen" them away!

Even alone, this feature feels like it's breaking half a dozen gaming rules but it is nothing compared to the flashing mushrooms which are scattered throughout the locations and have a 70% chance of killing you - except on the rare occasion when they will boost your energy instead. Naturally, against those odds, you practically need to be at death's door to consider taking the risk.

Cast your mind back to those enemies mentioned earlier. In fact, these enemies number ghosts, soldiers, fires and gas bubbles. None of the weapons you can find (an axe, a staff and a sword) fire bullets, meaning that the only way you can test whether any weapon defeats any enemy is by barging into it and hoping that this won't see your energy wiped out in a fraction of a second. Why the axe defeats the fire or the staff defeats bubbles is beyond me.

Now, perhaps, AGD included all of the above "features" because they were mentioned in whatever surviving documentation exists about the Mire Mare Ultimate release. I don't know enough about that to comment. What I do know is that they do not hang together well in this tribute; more often than not, my jaunts into Land Of Mire Mare found me backed up against a dead end whilst enemies "hovered" over me until my energy was wiped out.

On that basis alone, I would have trouble recommending you play it. And with all the bizarre fighting weapons, "pledge" items and random death features, it becomes yet more exasperating.

If you can imagine this game on release without the Mire Mare connection, I would be summing up that it was a difficult, colourful, frustrating graphic adventure that doesn't really offer much more than a hundred others.

This being the case therefore, the Ultimate association suddenly becomes a rod for its own back. Clearly, it's an interesting idea to try to "deliver" a game that enthusiasts have always wanted, the splendid packaging is an obvious plus and the game itself is put together well. In all fairness too, I have to point out that you can download it for free - the £24.95 price tag is only for a physical cassette version.

And yet I do still have enormous difficulty with the amount that Land Of Mire Mare is being sold at. It's so high that it leaves AGD open to allegations that this is not so much a tribute as an attempt to cash-in. The game itself is created with Jonathan Cauldwell's Arcade Game Designer utility; so many elements of it are generic. So if you do scout out a physical version, you are paying £25 for a cassette, a black box, some glossy paper and what I assume to be less programming work than has been put into the average Cronosoft title. And to give a more concrete illustration, the same price will buy you six Cronosoft Spectrum games.

Often I can see the sense in collecting up the physical versions as the limited number of them produced means they increase in value very quickly. However, I seriously doubt whether Land Of Mire Mare will ever sell for more than £24.95, so much better to download it instead.

Land Of Mire Mare Scores

Graphics 6
Atmosphere 4
Presentation 10
Value for Money 3
Overall 5

Every Game Going - Live At Last!

I'm happy to end this column - the last one of 2015! - with an exciting announcement. Since starting to write for Micro Mart, one of the problems I have faced is that of providing reliable web links for you all. By the time the magazine is a few weeks old, the link I have given has ceased to work. For all the downloads featured, there has not been a "focal point" - i.e. something like the Apple Store or YouTube - with the cover art, screenshots and links to information about each game featured. Obviously, it's not my fault. It happens because:

  1. Some games are only produced in limited number. They sell out and the publisher takes the page about them down (i.e. Cronosoft, Monument Microgames);
  2. Some games are only available on forum threads, so if the site closes down, all of that software disappears forever (i.e. Retro Software, World Of Spectrum);
  3. Some publishers have terrible web sites (i.e. Cronosoft);
  4. Some publishers only buy a single web domain for a year, and then forget to renew it, either ceasing to sell the game, or selling it somewhere else;
  5. Some games are hidden in really obscure places, i.e. cross-domain links on indieretronews.com, and then the developer changes the filename on his own domain; or
  6. Some games are in English, but are hidden away on Spanish or Russian sites, and it can be extremely difficult to pick out the download you need - meaning you have to follow complicated instructions (which I don't have space to give) to even get it.

I therefore present to you (Drum roll please) Everygamegoing, or EGG for short - a site which at one fell swoop brings a bit of order to this temperamental world. One page for every game ever released for any machine on any format, complete with all the information you need to find it, buy it and play it. It has links to legal downloads too.

On it, you'll find every game I've ever reviewed in Micro Mart and, from this column onwards, you'll just get a single tinyurl link to the game's page rather than the plethora of links to YouTube videos or forum posts featured previously. This will free up more space for more reviews in future columns, which is great.

You might find EGG is a bit basic for the time being - basically, all you can do is search on it, but I'm sure you will agree it's a lot better to have a single place where you can simply enter the name of any retro game I've featured and won't be faced with a 404 error before the week's even out! It's got instructions for how to play all the ZX Vega games on it too, so if you're stuck for how to play any of them, consider it my Christmas present to you... Don't worry, it will grow with the next few columns.

Roll on a retro-gaming New Year...!

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