Imagine a world where you sit atop a giant blue ostrich and engage in medieval-style jousting contests with opponents riding giant green buzzards. This is the setting for Joust, Atari's smash arcade hit.
It sets itself apart from most other games by taking the idea of a two-player game one stage further - you play not only against another human opponent, but also against a number of computer opponents. Thus half a dozen combatants can be on the screen at once, each doing his/her/its own thing. This multi-player/multi-baddy idea has since been expanded to produce the staggeringly successful Gauntlet.
Now we have Skirmish, a superb conversion of this arcade favourite. I first heard of the game over a year ago, and the finished product proves to be very well worth the wait.
From the outset, it sets out to impress. The cassette loader features a remarkably good idea that until now I had only seen on Gary Partis' games. The screen actually shows you - via a countdown timer - how long you must wait for the rest of the game to load.
Another Partis-like feature is that you are presented with a full set of scrolling instructions while the main game code is loading - clever!
Once the game has loaded, three Jet-Pac style landing stages are displayed, and you are invited to start the game.
Upon doing so, I found that the player sprites look rather messy, because of the crammed-in detail. Aside from this minor point, Skirmish faithfully recreates all the addictive qualities of the arcade original.
The controls are simple: Left, Right and flap. The last control causes your bird to flap its wings once. Press it repeatedly to hover, and faster still to gain height. Being able to hover and manoeuvre well is the key to the game.
Skirmish features three different types of computer-controlled rider: The Bounders, wearing red armour, are fairly easy to defeat. The Hunters are more cunning, and the Shadow Lords are virtually impossible to dismount. The early stages feature only red Knights - cannon-fodder to an expert, but more difficult for the novice.
To win a joust, you must fly into any opposing player, making sure that your lance is higher than his. If you are successful, you will be rewarded with a satisfying "Thwack!" sound.
A vanquished human opponent simply loses a life and reappears somewhere else on the screen. However, a computer opponent falls off his mount and turns into an egg, while his riderless buzzard flies off into the distance.
You must grab this egg within a certain time period, or it will hatch, spawning a rider of the next grade. His buzzard will then reappear. If it gets to him before you do, it's back in play with a vengeance.
If your opponent's lance is higher than yours, you will die and your bird will fly mournfully away. You soon learn to fly to the top of the screen as quickly as possible, but even this commanding position is by no means safe.
The buzzard riders have a nasty habit of ganging up on one player - it's great to play the hero and swoop down from the skies to rescue your teammate from their clutches.
When all the computer-controlled riders have been defeated, the next wave begins. Later stages add even more nasties - the Lava Troll that stalks along the bottom of the screen, ready to grab any foolhardy contestant who comes too close, and the indestructible Pterodactyl that flies backwards and forwards until the wave has ended. The Pterodactyl can appear on earlier waves if you take too long to defeat your opponents - give it lots of air-space.
Skirmish provides all the useful features that make all the difference to any good game: Pause/Restart, Sound On/Off, and Quit Game are all included. Keyboard and joystick are supported in both one- and two-player modes.
Joystick control is almost essential for the two-player option, but Skirmish takes this feature one stage further. Press the fire button on joystick 1 for a one-player game and that on joystick 2 for a two-player bash. No sooner has one game ended than another can begin - an invaluable feature for a game this compulsive.
I can recommend Skirmish wholeheartedly; it is one of the most playable games I have ever seen and will certainly lead to a severe case of repeated late nights. To quote the loading commentary: Prepare to joust, buzzard-bait.