The Amiga experience

People are under the mistaken impression that I actually know what I’m talking about over here and as such I occasionally get asked to recommend games on various formats, generally influenced by whatever it is I’m ranting about at the time. In this particular instance the lovely Veleskola wanted to know more about the computer I grew up with, the computer that really got me into gaming – the Amiga.

Those of you polite enough to keep clicking on the blog post links I tweet will probably know that I’ve done a few similar things before, but what I really wanted to create this time wasn’t just a list of amazing exclusives, but more a look at the most Amiga games – titles that really capture the flavour of the era and the interests of UK computer gamers at the time. As such the games I mention below aren’t necessarily the very best examples of their genres or even Amiga exclusives but they hopefully come together to create a bit of a window on the highs, lows, and occasional weirdness of European computer gaming in the early nineties.

The “genres” below are pretty loose which is why you’ll see Body Blows and Final Fight discussed in the same segment, for example - it’s really just a chance to have a meander through broadly similar styles that may appeal and/or be of interest.

Jump ‘em ups: There was a time when the platformer was so important to gaming that you simply couldn’t have a format without one – Mario, Sonic, and Bonk were the iconic console mascots while Amiga owners ended up with… Zool: Ninja of the Nth Dimension. Yay. Zool is basically what happens when you try to copy Sonic without understanding what made Sonic the Hedgehog so good in the first place and then slap a Chupa Chups license on top. It’s not all bad on the platform front though! The Amiga still has the most-arcade-accurate home port of Jaleco’s amazing Rodland (technically trumped by the recent-ish iOS release, but its not the same as a proper home release…), an incredibly cute-but-tough adventure that lets you beat up adorable jellies as a pink-haired fairy girl until they cry. Then there’s Nebulus (known as Castelian on the NES/GB) with its fantastically impressive towers that the entire game literally revolves (sorry) around. Second Samurai is another title worth mentioning, being essentially the same as it’s more popular prequel First Samurai, but much better. The final slot in the section deserves to go to Thalion’s Lionheart, a beautiful but a tad frustrating adventure that was lauded at the time for being just as good but even more beautiful than anything a SNES or Mega Drive could manage.

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Punching-people-in-the-face ‘em ups: There’s an elephant in the room, and that elephant’s shaped like four floppy discs of Street Fighter II. It’s not a good port, but bless them for trying to cram the game onto a format where a total 1MB of RAM was considered an upgrade, and a two button joystick was an optional extra. Thankfully Final Fight fared much better than Street Fighter II did and remains a playable game even if the Mega CD port’s far superior. Not that US Gold’s programmers ever really had a fighting chance in any case - back then Capcom sold the license to produce a game, and not any rights to the code itself. So to get the Final Fight sprites looking as good as they did at all the programmer had to extract them from a PCB he’d bought himself. You’d have thought that with Final Fight somehow still managing to end up a decent game would bode well for Amiga-born titles like Sword of Sodan, but even though it’s got sprites a mile high (a massive achievement in 1988) it is in all other respects utter garbage. Amiga developers didn’t stop there though, and had a crack at creating their own home-grown Street Fighter II clones too, like Team 17’s Body Blows (which managed to get two sequels, AGA* enhanced releases, and a CD-32 port on the back of Amiga owners attitude of “We want to play Street Fighter II but are too stubborn to buy a ‘childish’ console”) and N.A.P.S Team’s Shadow Fighter, both of which I’d file under these days as “OK to play for curiosity’s sake”.

*AGA stands for “Advanced Graphics Architecture” – in practical terms it means fancy-pants extra colours in your games, but only for the Amiga 1200.

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Shoot ‘em ups: This was before we called them “shmups”, remember! If you’re interested in the genre I highly recommend the Amiga’s Finest Wasp-Based Faux-Japanese Shmup™, Apidya, which I covered pretty recently here. Then there’s Xenon 2, which is somewhat unfairly remembered more for having a Bomb the Bass track as it’s theme music than for being a decent shmup (which it is). Blood Money by DMA Design (yes, that DMA Design) is an interesting planet-hopping romp and one of their earliest games, coming out in 1989. Agony’s both a real looker and an Amiga exclusive, possessing the sort of animation that’s normally reserved for pixel artist tech demos. My special shmupping mention has to go to Battle Squadron; it’s one of the top-tier vertical shmups on the system and has a rather nifty overworld/sub stage design that really should have been ripped off by somebody else by now.

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Role playing ‘em ups: The most obvious Amiga choice here is probably Dungeon Master, which is why I’m going to pick it’s sequel, Chaos Strikes Back, instead. It’s essentially more of the same but a lot harder; so much so that you start naked in the dark surrounded by monsters – ace! If you like that sort of thing then you’ll definitely want to check out Black Crypt (criminally Amiga-only) and of course Westwood’s Eye of the Beholder as well. If adventuring through dank dungeons isn’t really your sort of thing then why not swap them for Ambermoon’s err, moons (and it’s impressive mix of overhead world/3D dungeons/turn based battles – only officially in German, mind) or ditch the swords-and sorcery entirely for the sci-fi tactical brilliance that is Shadoworlds?

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Think ‘em ups: You really can’t talk about puzzle games without mentioning Lemmings, but while the original’s an inarguable classic I much prefer the sequel Lemmings 2: The Tribes, thanks to the vastly expanded suicide puzzle solving options available. Ishido: Way of the Stones is a great tile-matching game if you fancy something with a more laid-back pace, and Gem’X takes Japanese style arcade puzzle games and brings them to floppy discs. Log!cal takes the standard puzzle game colour-matching concept and makes it massively more complicated, but in a very satisfying way. The objective is to match sets of balls in spinners, a feat made difficult by limited pathways, coloured gates, and a timer that forces you keep going or forfeit the round.

Even better than all that is The Sentinel, a terrifying and unforgettably surreal experience. A first person 3D game, The Sentinel thrusts you into a strange alien landscape where your goal is to escape the harmful glare of the titular adversary (and his lesser sentries on some stages), and work out a way to position yourself higher than that… thing, absorb her life force, then teleport to her platform to complete the stage. You could probably write something clever about becoming the evil you once hid from there, but the most important thing is to try the game out for yourself, because there’s really nothing else like it (other than the PC/PS1 sequel, Sentinel Returns, that is).

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Amiga ‘em ups*: This “genre” is a hodge-podge of games I could have mentioned earlier but didn’t as well as titles that didn’t fit into any of the categories above. The most Amiga game ever is probably Shadow of the Beast, even though it’s been ported to every popular format known to man (and the Atari Lynx). Technically impressive and visually striking even today, although when you get down to it the game itself is really OK at best. Still, it’s a mesmerising and unusual experience which makes it something of a “must see” on its original format. Back in the nineties everybody wanted Doom on their format, and that included Amiga owners who were starting to realise that they were being left behind by their “dorky” IBM-owning counterparts. Neither Amiga owners nor programmers were quite prepared to leave Commodore’s hardware behind just yet though, and because of this stubbornness the world was graced with Gloom, a game lauded for being really not too bad at ripping off “that other game we don’t have”. Assuming you have the A1200 needed to not run it at a postage stamp sized resolution, Gloom’s a pretty fast and entertaining blast ‘em up, although the level design (and design in general) isn’t a patch on the real thing. Whether you like football or not Sensible Soccer’s always a safe bet, making for a nice arcade-like kickabout either against the CPU or with a soon-to-be-ex-friend. Moonstone’s basically what happens when you make Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom before you really know what a side-scrolling beat ‘em up adventure is supposed to look like, and quite rightly remains a sought-after title all these years later. The final game for this section’s French classic Captain Blood, a truly alien adventure that’s as stylish as it is mysterious.

*Apart from the games that were also on the Atari ST (Atari sucks!)

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Obviously I’ve left out lots of great titles there (Superfrog, Frontier: Elite II, Populous, Stunt Car Racer to name just a few) and on a few occasions done something even worse and undersold a pioneering classic but discovering things for yourself is all part of the fun right? That’s my excuse anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

At its best the Amiga was diverse, experimental, and the origin of more noteworthy titles than such a relatively niche piece of hardware has any right to be. At its worst… well, it was no worse than any of the other crud that gets released elsewhere. Some Amiga quirks are definitely best left in the past, such as pushing up on the joystick to jump or having to decide between music or sound effects in a lot of games, but when the Amiga’s good it’s great, a reminder of a time when Europe as a collective whole was an independent and creative gaming force in its own right, making European games for European gamers. For better or worse, there’s not really been anything like it since.

Hopefully the first of many: A little look at… the Bubble Bobble LCD game!

Welcome to the first blog post of a new era, essentially “Shinju Forest+” - special posts covering super-cool Japanese LCD game-things thanks to the aid of some very kind and supportive donors. As I’m sure is already obvious, for this first post I’m going to look at Epoch’s attempt to recreate Taito’s arcade classic Bubble Bobble in portable form.

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The unit itself is a thoroughly dinky 7x4cm with a little set of buttons-as-a-d-pad on the left, A and B buttons on the right, and power/sound buttons just above. It’s small and light enough to dangle off your keys so long as you’re not precious about scratching it (I must admit, I am), and there’s a keyring loop on the upper left that will allow you to do this if you wish. Sound and music come out of the little speaker on the rear – placed in the middle so it’s unlikely to be muffled by fingers – and can be cycled between three volume levels as well as turned off completely. Using buttons instead of a true pad, especially at this size, isn’t ideal but it isn’t a major issue either and the game feels quick and responsive after a short amount of time to adjust. There’s also a rather handy pause function should you find yourself called away to do something a little more productive, and when you die your high score is saved and visible on the start screen, even if you turn it off.

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A bit of research unearthed a lovely bit of news - Bubble Bobble is just one of seven similar retro adaptations Epoch created! All the games are built in a very similar manner with only small variations in screen size, the number of buttons – and obviously, screen contents.

The complete series is as follows:

LR-01 – Space Invaders Part II (Nov 27th 2005)

LR-02 – Makaimura (Nov 27th 2005)

LR-03 – Bubble Bobble (Nov 27th 2005)

LR-04 – Hang On (2006)

LR-05 – Puyo Puyo (2006)

LR-06 – Crazy Climber (2007)

LR-07 – Elevator Action (2007)

Around 2009 a company known as “Hashy TOPIN” then went on to re-release repackaged versions of Epoch’s games (Space Invaders, Puyo Puyo) as well as add some all-new licensed titles in a similar vein (Pengo, Fantasy Zone) for their “Pocket Boy” range.

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Bubble Bobble’s screen is constructed from 1x1 “cells” that allow for platforms/walls on all sides as well as a bubble, enemy, and Bub (facing both ways) inside. Each of these cells are about half a centimetre square, and the screen has 5x6 cells in total with a border around the top and the right for your score, power gauge, items, lives, and a few other bits and pieces. This naturally makes the art very small, but good design means they’re also very distinct and easy to read – I’ve never had any issue seeing which way Bub’s facing, even from a quick glance. The same goes for the enemy “sprite” – it’s clearly a different shape from anything else in the game, and makes for an easy to read playfield. The screen can scroll in all four directions (depending on the level), with small arrows on the edges letting you know in which directions the playfield extends from your current position.

The game itself doesn’t try to replicate any specific stages from the bubble-popping series but it does do a decent job of squishing as much of the actual gameplay as possible into LCD form with special items, powered-up bubbles, water bubbles (these pop and unleash a current of water just as they should), and even boss battles every eighth stage! There’s mercifully no bubble-hopping in this version of the game but it does have bubble-floating to help you get around the parts that jumping can’t reach – just charge up a bubble shot until Bub’s inside, and then move around with the d-pad. There’s a grand total of 120 stages to tackle if you’ve got the skill, and if you’re feeling impatient or plain old short on time there’s the option to start from any of the first twenty-three levels if you just want to get stuck right in.

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Overall Epoch’s portable Bubble Bobble comes across as a confident and thoughtful conversion of a legendary coin-op that knows exactly which bits to keep and what needs to be changed to make for a successful handheld title, and is arguably better than most of the more recent attempts to revive the franchise on “proper” gaming formats. This unassuming LCD keychain is actually a fun and fair platformer that’s more than worth a look should you happen across one on your travels.  

If you’ve enjoyed this post and you’d like to help me buy more wonderful LCD games to write about, you can do so over here - http://www.gofundme.com/zs4xvs

The return of the fanzine: Virtual On edition

Last month I had a lot of fun making up a fake magazine spread for Fatal Fury Special, trying to rip off pay tribute to some of my favourite magazines of the 90’s – in particular Super Play and C&VG’s enthusiastic style. This month I wanted to do something similar-but-different, so here’s a little love letter/gentle poke at Edge magazine back when it was so new and fresh that it came sealed in plastic bags, the contents a mystery to anyone unwilling to cough up for their superior paper quality and glossy covers.

As before, the writing is “in character” and my somewhat wobbly attempt to capture the spirit of a magazine that I still enjoy flipping through even today – I hope you enjoy it (and please let me know if you do)!

(By the way, the screenshot quote on the second “page” is lifted from their infamous review of Doom)

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A little look at… Apidya

Ages ago I took a quick look at a rather strange period in European computer gaming – that time in the early ‘90s when Super Play, Manga Mania and Anime UK were our entire window on Japanese entertainment and having an amazing anime collection involved owning a single Bubblegum Crisis VHS tape and if you were lucky recording half an episode of Tenchi Muyo off Channel 4 at 2am. One of the games I mentioned in that previous blog post was Apidya, yet another shmup on a computer already heaving under the weight of countless other similar arcade ports and home-grown exclusive titles. Doesn’t sound too promising, does it? Well, Apidya had a rather novel little trick up its sleeve…

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Like developer Kaiko’s other Amiga release, Gem’X, Apidya was designed to hoodwink European gamers into thinking this was a port of a hidden Japanese arcade gem – and at the time it was generally considered that they’d done a pretty good job! After all it had an anime intro, Japanese (ish) text on the title screen, and a green-haired lady in it – just like my Japanese animes! But that was a long time ago - what I was really interested in finding out was was whether Apidya could stand up as a decent game in its own right now the novelty of being a “Japanese” game had worn off over two decades ago.

Things don’t start off too well – the introductory art, writing, animation and well… everything look and feel rather amateurish: by the time Apidya had been released in 1992 the Amiga 500 had already been around for five years and was clearly capable of something far more polished. Thankfully as soon as our hero, Ikuro, magically turns himself into a wasp/hornet/whatever picnic-ruining insect he’s supposed to be the graphics improve dramatically and we’re presented with a tough but surprisingly reasonable (for the era) Gradius/R-Type inspired Euroshmup with a unique garden setting.

Wait, garden? Yep, that’s right! Ikuro’s epic quest to defeat an evil lady-poisoning wizard takes you through such epic locations as… some tall grass, a pond, and a sewer - complete with discarded cigarette packet. Along the way the forces of darkness manifest themselves as moles, snails, giant trout, ghostly butterflies and other similarly terrifying creatures. Later on you briefly become a robo-bee and go through a techno-themed level accompanied by what is possibly the most 90’s music track ever to be committed to floppy disc. It actually all works better in practise than it sounds written down here, and while the intent was to create something distinctly Japanese the end result is actually unmistakably European, in the same way that Secret of Evermore was Squaresoft USA’s stab at making their own “Japanese” Mana-like RPG.

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Shmup classics Gradius and R-Type were clearly the inspiration for the gameplay, and as such Apidya has a similar charge shot system to Irem’s famous R-9A Arrowhead while also benefiting from a bomb/shot/option powerup menu like Konami’s Vic Viper. Pleasantly when you die (and you will die) the game only reduces your firepower a few notches rather than immediately stripping you back to your original pea-shooter, and checkpoints also exist throughout each stage to lessen the frustration. Having said that the game still contains more than a fair few “gotcha” moments to rob you of your precious lives and it also features one of my shmupping pet hates, instant death on collision with any and all scenery.

Thankfully those issues are just a small annoyance when considering the game as a whole, which features some large boss sprites, secret levels, and some clever little gimmicks to spice things up a bit.

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Apidya is a tough game but it does on the whole feel “fair tough” and not, well, “’90s Amiga tough”. The anime-like sections are toe-curlingly awful but everything else, while definitely dated, holds up well for a game that’s twenty three years old. It may not be the long-lost arcade classic it tried to make out it was and ultimately isn’t as good as the games the designers quite rightfully revered, but if you’d like to try something a little different as well as a shmup that encapsulates the Amiga scene of the time then Apidya is a game that simply cannot be missed.