The retro games keep coming, but more modern ones are disappearing... and Dave Edwards doesn't like it one little bit
Reviewed By Dave E In Micro Mart #1414: May 2016 SpecialIntroduction | Phantomasa 2 | Scores | Jet Set Willy: The Nightmare Edition | Scores | Vade Retro | Scores | Imogen | Scores | Adieu – To You And You And You
It's a truism that more people are into the "best" retro games on their format of choice, than the "new" games for that format. For example, my girlfriend has a Sega Mega Drive/Genesis emulator on her PC to replay the odd game of ToeJam & Earl. My sister has WinUAE installed almost entirely to try and finally win Superfrog. That's because they remember the "old" retro games they played in their youth, but someone (like me) has to actually draw their attention to the "new" retro games that are constantly coming out.
This month we've got another detailed look a selection of "new" retro games, but before we dive into them, I've got something pressing to get off my chest. In the latter stages of my own youth I had a first generation iPod Touch. I bought and downloaded a great game for it called DJ Mix Tour by GameLoft, on which I spent more hours than the rest of my downloads combined.
Recently, I dug out my old iPod Touch and connected it to my newest PC, on which I had installed the latest version of iTunes. Said software, for some unknown reason and without any warning, immediately erased my treasured DJ Mix Tour. Somewhat miffed by this, I went looking for it in the Apple store to download it again. But it's an "old" game now, and I couldn't find it. So I ventured into some of the more dubious places on the Internet, wondering whether I could find a pirate version to replace my legitimately purchased one instead. But I was out of luck. Apart from a very old video review of someone playing it on YouTube, and a few screenshots on an archived page, DJ Mix Tour and all mention of it, seemed to have disappeared.
What's more startling to me than the loss of this really good game (and how iTunes is to be distrusted!), is that this game was released in just 2008. If such a relatively modern game now disappears within seven years, one really has to wonder how successive generations will replay their "old" retro games at all! In my naivety, I assumed that there would be an on-line archive of iPod Touch games for the older iPod Touch generations. I was wrong. There isn't even a simple list of what games work with what generations of iPod Touch. By no means is DJ Mix Tour the only "lost" game either. I can't find any trace on-line of some of the games my iPod Touch still retains. And these are big name titles: Silent Hill: The Room, Terminator Salvation, etc. Where have they all gone?
There are plenty of "new" games for the iPod Touch (which won't work on the First Generation model), but I can't find the "old" ones (which will). All this begs two questions. The first is whether future generations will be able to play the retro games of their youth at all (If they automatically erase in the same way, then the answer to that would seem to be no!). The second is whether computer archivists, several years hence, won't be crawling car boot sales for physical tapes and disks but for actual old, unformatted hardware!
Certainly, that's something to think about if, like me, you've got an older iPod Touch that you one day consider junking (or indeed plugging into a modern computer). The evidence is that DJ Mix Tour for the iPod Touch is now harder to find than Rule Of Rose for the PS2...
Herr. Phantomasa is a creation of the Mojon Twins, who have written more Speccy, Amstrad, MSX and retro-themed PC games that I've had hot dinners. Mind you, the Mojon Twins also created the utility La Churrera - which has succeeded in allowing almost everyone to be able to create their own platform games and reduced all "new" Spectrum platformers to being much of a muchness. I've lambasted quite a few of them right here over the years (Zombie Calavera (MM #1350) and Lala Prologue (MM #1354)) and am always a bit worried that, when a new one comes along, any review will simply be a regurgitation of the same old complaints.
However, I'm happy to report that Phantomasa 2 isn't a bad little caper at all, which may explain why it's just been given a physical release on the Silver Games Studio label (available through www.sellmyretro.com). The instructions are the usual over-complicated verbiage but the game itself is a colourful meander through fifty screens of fun, grabbing the moneybox from each one.
I don't propose to go too far into the dynamics of this game suffice it to say that there are the usual three controls - left, right and jump - and that your hero will jump further if you are able to take at least a short run-up to whatever obstacle you're trying to leap. Phantomasa has an energy level, depleted by the usual playing mistakes.
A typical room contains two floating nasties, and they are plotted in a random position when you enter and then gravitate slowly towards you. Although this works as a concept, I find this to be somewhat "lazy" design for a game. Whether or not you can grab the money and escape the room without colliding with one or other of them is pseudo-random. Unless, that is, you keep exiting and re-entering every room several times to get them in a position whereby you know (from previous plays) that they can be avoided. Blah, too much work!
The game is very responsive and, in addition to the money, objects appear (also at random) which give temporary invulnerability or top up your energy level. Alas, collecting invulnerability causes Phantomasa to flicker very quickly, making him extremely difficult to position.
There are two versions of Phantomasa 2 on the cassette, and each is different enough to qualify as a game in its own right. As there are no graphic adventure elements, all you need do is "stash the cash", meaning neither game is difficult. In learning how to complete each room, you will get a little bit further each time you play until you eventually succeed in amassing all the swag.
The 128K version of Phantomasa 2 is also included on the ZX Vega.
Value For Money 50%
Jet Set Willy: The Nightmare Edition is a new game for the original Spectrum 48K. It's been over a year in the making and, right off the bat, I must confess this is the most terrible version of Jet Set Willy I have ever played.
The Jet Set Willy/Manic Miner Community have taken the classic Jet Set Willy and they have edited it, ramping up the difficulty. What, exactly, the point of actually doing such a thing is, is somewhat lost on me personally. I appreciate however that a community that totally revolves around Jet Set Willy might conceive a project of making a new Jet Set Willy game, and that making a more difficult version of the original is one idea that hadn't actually been tried before.
However, I'll venture I know why it hadn't been tried before. Most people love the original. They love playing it on their iPhones, or their new blue-toothed Spectrum keyboards, or on their PC, or on their MSX Beecard imported specially from Japan. And I would venture the reason the original game is so well-loved is because how to get through quite a lot of the original screens was permanently imprinted on their brains all those years ago. They want to finish the game off - even if it's hard and it is going to take them a lifetime.
This version takes all of the fun of that away. Let me turn to the very first screen, the familiar bathroom, to illustrate what has been done. In the original, Willy begins the game next to a flashing tap, which is the first of many objects he must collect in order to win the approval of his housekeeper (and then be allowed to retire to bed).
In the nightmare version, there is an additional tap located in the top right of the screen. To get to that tap requires Willy to venture into a corner of the bathroom that, in the original, he didn't need to. That means a jump over a patrolling pair of nutcrackers. However, try it and Willy will die - because a totally invisible deadly block is situated in exactly the area Willy's head will collide with!
This illustrates exactly the point of The Nightmare Edition. The idea is that players go to collect the items, instinctively imagining that the game will behave in a certain way because of their familiarity with the original. The game then kills them off, or throws them into a state of confusion by having invisible obstacles, or obstacles slightly moved from their positions in the original.
There are only two new rooms; others are just murderously difficult versions of the original ones. New obstructions litter every room, making even crossing previously easy rooms (by just walking across the bottom of the screen) an exercise in hair-pulling and expletive-roaring. Playing The Nightmare Version is like playing one of those "versions" of a game where you can set the level of difficulty before you start. For example, where you would have a menu offering you "Easy, Medium, Hard or Impossible". I would say the original was Hard, so this leaves this version as the only option harder than that. Get the idea and still feel like a play on it? No, thought not.
Jet Set Willy: The Nightmare Edition is the most demoralising game I've played this year. The vast number of developers involved in its production only serves to me to highlight that the closer you are to a project, the less you are able to see the bigger picture. The sad fact is that the only audience for this monstrosity is the very team that has put it together. 99.9% of people will continue to prefer the original.
There are some little inclusions that did something to abate my ire - but not by a lot. There are three new pieces of music, and these are in relatively accessible rooms. They fit perfectly with the scenario and are a welcome inclusion. There is also some feeling of satisfaction when you do (against seemingly impossible odds) work out exactly how to collect a particular item. The uplift in lives is, naturally, welcome, although the "repeating death-loop" of the original is still present on some screens ("Entrance To Hades" being one of them) meaning they just take longer to cycle through if you're unlucky.
Now I suppose you could say to me "Hang on, put yourself in the mind of someone who is madly in love with Jet Set Willy. They've played every variant they can, and every unofficial sequel with all its new rooms. Just perhaps, then, they might find The Nightmare Edition to their liking and maybe even think it's the best thing since sliced bread?"
The trouble with that argument is, however, that I am such a person. I have played every variant of it, I have played all the unofficial sequels. I've even played many clones that used Jet Set Willy as their unofficial inspiration. Many of them I loved, and strived to conquer.
But, after an hour of playing The Nightmare Version, not only did I never want to see it again but I felt almost complete despair about the community that had, with such finesse, put it all together without realising there will be zero audience for it. It seems to me they've wasted not only their own time, but also the time of anyone who downloads the thing.
Frustration Factor 95%
If you're an evil sorcerer with the power to zombify at will, you probably think the town's blacksmith isn't going to give you a lot of trouble. That's what Senor Delcram thought anyway when he started throwing his orb around zombifying the eastland inhabitants of Ye Olde Dysarlyn. He was wrong in a big way. Like a cross between Clint Eastwood and Steven Seagal, the town's blacksmith forced Delcram into a seriously quick retreat.
The blacksmith returned to his quiet life assuming the adventure was over - but no, not quite. Delcram is, apparently, back. In Vade Retro, you become Eshur the blacksmith. Your task: Get your sword back, anoint it with poison, collect a few skulls for good luck, find Delcram and finish what you started.
And so begins a rather nice "old school" platform graphic adventure game for the Spectrum 48K/128K. Vade Retro feels like it belongs right back in 1984. Not that that's bad; it just doesn't offer anything particularly unique. Dizzy, Finders Keepers and Palace Of Magic have set the gold standard and Vade Retro feels like it's only aiming for silver.
You walk from one room to another, flick-screen style, passing an array of gorgeous graphics, including unfurled heraldic flags, stained glass windows and crucifixes. Exploring your surroundings you'll find forests, villages and dungeons, all rooms being well themed. The playing area also wraps around on itself, so you don't need to retrace your steps as often as you might expect. What most of these rooms have in common however is that they're almost deathly quiet. One bouncing spider if you're lucky. Hmmm.
Your first mission is to collect four "seals" that open the dungeon door. Two are easily located; the others are in the battlements of a castle. Leaping into this area, you find yourself chased by a monster - who floats in, either from the left or from the right, directly toward you. Entering and leaving the room gets rid of him but, after a brief pause, he appears again, a heat-seeking missile which will inevitably get you in the end as you struggle to progress over the platforms from the room's entrance to its exit.
There's something a little depressing about the whole mix of Vade Retro. It falls into some familiar Spectrumesque traps with colour clash being very apparent. Walk in front of a white wall and Eshur turns white, in front of a black background he goes back to yellow. It's also never a good idea to plot small red patrolling nasties on the roofs of red houses; still less to force you to blindly jump from the roofs from one room to another. And there's barely any sound in the game itself, apart from a blip when you jump or lose energy. On top of that, the instructions say Delcram has succeeded in enslaving or killing everyone but you, so you only really seem to be fighting to live a life of eternal solitude anyway.
You have a single life with an energy bar which can be replenished by collecting the skulls. On the more positive side, this is reasonably challenging. It's difficult at first to avoid the floating monster things; it does get easier with practice. Eshur is also well-animated and responsive. I liked the way you could control your jumps in mid-air. I also liked the polish of the loading, opening and game over screens - and the way each seal you collect lights up in your inventory at the bottom of the screen. You do feel a sense of achievement when you complete each of the tasks which goes some way towards alleviating the emptiness of the rooms themselves.
As I said above, Vade Retro isn't a "bad" game. It was actually released as a free download about eleven months ago, and I did play it at the time, but its publisher Retroworks has now decided it deserves a physical release and a limited number of cassettes are now available at 10 Euros each. Both its cover art and on-screen language are English, but it's "English written by a Spaniard". I had to practically rewrite its instructions, sifting through all their irrelevancies to get to the point of how to play.
The care that goes into the finish of Retroworks' releases is always second to none and Vade Retro comes in a lovely fold-out cardboard box, similar to the impressive 2014 Spectrum 128K game Brunhilda. Alas, it's not as good as that beauty (Indeed, some consider Brunhilda to be the best Spectrum game of all time) but it will probably garner a fair amount of interest on the back of it.
Verdict: Great backstory, graphics and physical presentation but a fairly mediocre platform game. And so many empty rooms lessen the excitement of the original premise.
Value For Money 50%
Yes, it's another retro-themed PC game...! Imogen is a puzzle game in sixteen sections, originally released for the BBC Micro in 1987 and ported, some sixteen years later, to the PC. In the game you play a wizard who has begun to trouble the villagers by howling at the moon and insisting he is referred to by a girl's name. Their entirely reasonable reaction has been to seal him up in a warren of caves which can only be conquered by pure logic.
Released by Ovine By Design, who also wrote Exile 2: The Nameless (See MM #1410), this new version of Imogen is a reimagining of the original; it retains all of the elements that had us all scratching our heads in bewilderment throughout 1987-1988 and updates the graphics, sound, colour and animation. It also introduces an "attract mode" which parades all the different cartoon characters featured in the game.
The game itself is a side-on, flick-screen platformer. You initially have control of the beardy-weirdy wizard, but you may use the cursor keys to transmogrify into either a cat or a monkey. The cat can jump the furthest, the monkey can climb the ropes and the wizard can hold and manipulate objects. A typical cave contains four screens in total, inhabited by a number of additional cartoon characters. For example, climb the ropes to collect a whip. Crack the whip at a dog to back it up into a corner allowing access to a room with a frog. Change into the cat to reach the frog, change into the wizard to pick it up, and squeeze its belly to open up the door to another screen.
This being a remake of the original game, the puzzles are identical and some of the frustrations of the original come with the package too. Firstly, the icon system. Flicking between Z, X and ENTER to operate whatever character you are, and remembering to use Cursor Left, Cursor Right and SPACE to highlight and select the desired animal is trickier than it at first seems. Secondly, the cat seems to suffer from a variable jump control; he jumps further with something of a run-up. This rather important feature - crucial to solving some of the puzzles! - hasn't made it to the instructions. Thirdly, the monkey climbs the ropes but does so is a non-intuitive way. You hold down the "fire" key to ascend them at one speed, whilst releasing it will cause him to fall at a faster, different speed. You also cannot change direction whilst jumping.
Some might argue that these frustrations are part of the game's "pull" factor, of course.
The game features very nice touches - the animation of Imogen being cast into his prison, and what happens when you click the "X" to quit it being just two of them. All told therefore, this is quite a remarkable remake - it has managed to retain all the features of the original whilst delivering a game that is modern and very appealing to all.
That brings us to the end of another fascinating glimpse into what's new in the world of the old. As per usual, follow the tinyurls for videos, downloads, instructions and trivia galore. Until next month, adieu.