28/04/2016

NITRO BALL (ARCADE)

Last time out I wrote about Gladiator, and I mentioned that the name didn't seem very appropriate. Well, that's not true of today's game: in Japan it's called Gun Ball, and it's all about guns and steel balls. That makes it sound like a Duke Nukem spin-off, but it isn't. It's a combination of - get this - Smash TV, Mercs and pinball. It was renamed Nitro Ball for overseas release and that's the version I'll be playing, so here it is: Data East's 1992 melange-em-up Nitro Ball!


Okay, so the title screen's about as interesting as a sightseeing trip to Coventry but it gets better, I promise. Let's have the intro bring us up to speed, shall we?


Well, that's everything explained nice and succinctly. Pinball worlds, blast things, avoid the goons. No, ignore that last part. Don't avoid the goons, you might hurt their feeling. Shoot them instead and feast on the warm spray of points that gushes from their shattered bodies. Because Nitro Ball is at least thirty percent pinball, one of your main aims is to rack up the biggest points total you can and that's not going to happen if you ignore the enemies.



Here are some of the fabulous prizes you can win in Nitro Ball, with everything from sports cars to one of the gold coins from Scrooge McDuck's money vault. That must be one hell of a car if it's worth the same as an ocean liner. Maybe it's the actual car from OutRun.
Also of note is the "H" item, which apparently activates hudging. I have no idea whether or not I want to get hudged. It sounds like if someone who harboured a slight resentment towards you went for a playful nudge and accidentally hurt you.


As I'm playing alone I'll be controlling Gary, an ex-Navy sregeant. Hey, dyslexia is not a bar to joining the armed forces. Gary is confidently strapping on his armour, blissfully unaware that this game features one-hit kills and he might as well have wrapped himself in tissue paper like a last-minute Halloween mummy.


If I had friends, I might have been able to see Harry in action. Gary and Harry, brothers in arms. Harry is an ex-police officer, fired for using a ridiculous gun that looks like an uzi with a Super Soaker barrel instead of his standard-issue sidearm.


The game begins with the host appearing on a holographic screen and announcing that the first stage will be Strange Football Field. He is not kidding.


Once the gameplay starts, the comparisons to Capcom's Mercs become almost unavoidable, with a very similar style of run-n-gun action where the combat takes place on a long vertical screen and you can only fire in the direction you're facing. No twin-stick controls here, sadly, but it doesn't hamper the gameplay any. Gary moves at a fair old clip, and the controls are precise and reliable, although it did take me a while to compensate for the starting weapon's projectiles not travelling all the way across the screen. Just lift your gun up a little, Gary! What's the matter, is it too heavy for you? Aww, diddums - but you'd better figure something out quickly, otherwise a gun turret shaped like an American football is going to perforate you. Strange football field, indeed. If the NFL are really looking to promote gridiron in other countries, I think adding pigskin-covered machine gun nests to the Superbowl should do it.


Yeah, something like that, that'll get the Europeans right into American football.
The other game that Nitro Ball draws influence from - to an almost lawsuit worthy-degree - is Smash TV, although aside from them both being top-down arena-style shooters the connections are more obvious in the setting. Both games are framed as a deadly futuristic game show, both games have blonde announcers in a sparkly jacket, both games have voiced sound clips shouting "Bingo!" and "Good luck!" and both games see you collecting consumer goods for points and have a post-stage screen where your points are totted up. The biggest difference is that the protagonist of Smash TV has realised the futility of their existence and doesn't bother wearing chest armour. However, don't misunderstand me: I'm not complaining about the setting being pilfered, because Smash TV is great and, ah ha, I love it. It must be disappointing for the games developers and sci-fi writers of the past who thought the game shows of the future were going to be hyper-violent deathmatches when what we actually got was Total Wipeout. Maybe one day we'll get a version of Pointless where Richard Osman drops his usual comedy patter and coldly executes the losing contestants with a single gunshot to the back of the head, but until then I'll have to stick with watching The Running Man over and over again. This is not a problem for me.


Then a cheeky chicken appeared and started throwing the contents of a sultan's spare room at me. Can I quit now? I've just picked up ten Rolexes and I'm not a greedy man. I'd like to cash out my winnings. No? Oh, okay then. Thank you anyway, chicken mascot. I'm grateful for your generosity, although it was slightly soured moments later when you turned around and started waving your arse at me.


The third and final pillar that Nitro Ball proudly stands upon is pinball. Yes, regular, mechanical pinball, transposed to the shooter genre. The pinball theme is evident in several ways, the most obvious being the focus on racking up a high score and the preponderance of pinball table parts in the levels. Each stage is packed with buffers, bumpers, rails and holes, just as you'd find on a pinball machine. These can almost all be shot and destroyed for points, but even better than that is using the enemies to score points. Regular grunts fall over and roll around when shot, and you can shoot them into the buffers or down holes for big bonuses and extra items, so as well as the usual "shoot everything and don't get shot" mechanics of the genre Nitro Ball has an extra layer of trying to score points by shepherding goons into the right position and then knocking them into the table elements with precise shooting. It's a combination that works fantastically well, especially in the earlier, easier stages when you've got more time and space to plan your moves.


Just in case that wasn't enough pinball for you, you can also collect a power-up that turns you into a pinball. It's not very subtle. It does make you invincible, though, so you switch from fighting enemies to fighting the ball's slightly weird, momentum-influenced controls. It's pretty good fun.


Eventually I made it to the first boss, and he's not as football-themed as I thought he was going to be. He looks more like Jason Voorhees gave up slaughtering teens and became a baseball catcher, and also his head shrank to a ridiculously tiny proportion of his body mass. This is not a problem unique to this boss, as we'll see later.
He's fairly standard as first bosses go, being mostly content to stand at the top of the screen and fire at you, either using three-way spread shots or a solid laser beam. All very predictable, and you can even hit the TOUCH DOWN panels to get yourself a special weapon. Here's I'm using the Ring Laser, which launches a spray of blue discs roughly in front of you, and very handy it is too. You can also find a missile launcher - although "rocket hose" might be a better name for it, given it's firing rate - a flamethrower that passes through enemies, and the Rail Blaster, which isn't an edgy reboot of Thomas the Tank Engine but a gun that fires a thick, chunky wedge of pure death and is easily the best of the weapons. True to Nitro Ball's refusal to countenance anything approaching subtlety, the weapons are described in the intro as weak, medium, strong!, very strong!! and incredibly strong!!!



You also have a limited use "Z Weapon" that makes you pirouette while Christmas baubles fly out of your body. The Z Weapon's description is simply "!!!!" so it's either the most powerful attack in the game or it feels like stubbing your toe on the corner of a marble fireplace.


The boss goes down, Gary moves on to the post-stage round-up and you're treated to a nice comic-book style illustration of said boss. I take back what I said earlier about the boss looking like Jason, it actually looks like the Michelin Man, risen from his dank and rubbery tomb to slay all those who would buy other, inferior brands of tyres.


Stage two is the Combat Field, a theme that is a little disappointing in it's plainness after the last one. It's not even a Strange Combat field. It also has the effect of making the game look more like Mercs than ever...


...although the whole "become a living pinball" thing definitely reduces any sense of over-familiarity. Those poor fools manning the turrets are going to wish they had a supple wrist soon, very soon, just as soon as I wrestle the pinball in right direction.


Halfway through each stage there's a short challenge area, usually in the "destroy x enemies / objects in y seconds" mould. In this case, it's a race to blow up ten tanks. The tanks helpfully have "TANK" painted on the side, just in case you mistook them for a small jar of pickled eggs or something. I'm trying out a tactic where I crawl towards the tank on my belly so I can shoot it from close range, and I definitely didn't die because I momentarily forgot that tanks have big guns.


The boss is a gun so big that it takes two tanks to carry it. The smaller tanks also have three guns each, and if guns were living, sentient creatures with feelings then I'd imagine these smaller guns would be feeling pretty goddamn inadequate right about now. Thankfully, gun's aren't alive. It would be horrendous if they were, brought to life only to be told that their sole purpose is to kill unless they're extremely lucky and they're one of the chosen few that get to start races.
So, how big is the tank's big gun?


Very big. Foolishly big. So big that the logistics of manufacturing and delivering these shells would cripple a nation's economy, yet slow enough that a man named Gary can dodge them. They also look, and I know this is just me but I can't not see it, like the top half of a sock.


Between stages you get the chance to participate in a bonus round with no enemies and treasure, treasure, treasure! All the points you amass here are added for your total for the next stage, and accumulating points here is extremely helpful (if not mandatory) if you want to beat the stage's record and earn an extra life for doing so. I managed to do so on the next stage, after collecting enough motorcycles and crowns to put together the world's most regal biker gang, with plenty of sapphires left over to order a bulk lot of denim vests and "SATANS KINGS" patches. The problem is that to access the bonus round you have to stop a spinning reel of numbers so that it matches the final two digits of your score. However, the number the reel stops on seems to be predetermined - I tried loading saves multiple times and pressing the button at different ponts and the same number always came up, so you're out of luck if you don't have an appropriate score at the end of the stage.


The next stage is Ghost Town, which is rather exciting for me. Ghost Towns are my wheelhouse, and with this I am so far in my wheelhouse that I've made a pillow fort. The gameplay is the same as ever, but you're fighting zombies and off-brand Slimers. Smilers, even, sinister grinning spectres that have somehow retained their eyebrows after death despite losing their legs. After a while, you can ignite the trail of oil and blow up the tanker, and it's all rather wonderful. Graphically Nitro Ball is a real treat, with well-animated sprites and very detailed environments that are packed with destructible scenery and charming flourishes. For example, the name of the company on the oil tanker is Incredible North Oil. No hiding their light under a bushel for them, they're very proud of their oil and they want everyone to know it.


After completing this stage's mid-point challenge, a goofy living car appeared and started throwing pianos at me, as though I'd unwittingly wandered into a Warner Brothers cartoon. Thanks, mysterious car who I guess is thematically supposed to be haunted or possessed or something. Yeah, possessed by the spirit of generosity! For those of you into deeply obscure videogame references, the car looks a bit like Tryrush Deppy's meaner older brother.


I'm sorry, everyone. I tried my best to get a decent screenshot of the Grim Reaper enemies in this section - you can just about see one hiding behind a zombie in the top-left - but I just couldn't manage it. There was so much going on all the time that I never got a clear shot. It will simply have to suffice that I can assure you that in this game you can shoot the grim visage of Death itself right in the bony face. And who do you always fight after defeating Death?


That's right, it's Dracula! A Dracula, anyway. A larger-than-usual Dracula with no feet, but definitely a vampire fancy enough to fall into my own personal category of "A Dracula." I like to think he's the mayor of Ghost Town, having narrowly defeated The Wolfman in a recent election. It was his "The Candidate With Bite!" slogan than really won over the voters.


The boss' main power is to summon a flock of ineffectual bats to fly into your bullets, although I suspect this is actually an attempt to lull the player into a false sense of security before zapping them with his eye-beams. I just wanted to show off how the boss' cape gets visibly damaged as the fight progresses, which I thought was a nice touch.


The next stage is Aliens World, and because this is a videogame that specifically means it looks like the works of H.R. Giger, rest in peace. He's airbrushing biomechanical dongs on the side of Lucifer's totally sweet van now. Anyway, that means a lot of fleshy architecture, bones galore and skulls sticking out of other things. It's a lot more colourful than your usual Gigerian hellscape, mind you. Lots of rich blues and salmon pinks. It reminds me a lot of the PC Engine pinball game Alien Crush, which seems appropriate.


Just in case you think I'm overstating the influence of the Alien movies' design aesthetic on this stage, take note of these eggs that are one hundred percent straight-up xenomorph eggs. Sadly facehuggers do not hatch out of them. Instead, there's a snake monster with the face of a lady writhing around. Two lady faces, actually, one at either end. Which one is the front and which one is the back? I'm not sure, and I'm going to pretend they're both the front. The alternative is too unpleasant to think about.


The boss is the top half of a skeletal monstrosity composed of sinew and bone that walks around atop two columns of severed testicles. What a cruel twist of evolution. No wonder he's so angry, and the boss's rage - and constant attacks with screen-filling spread shots - are where Nitro Ball starts to get really difficult. The Z Weapon can help you if you're in a real tight spot, and I was just starting to get the hang of things...


...when one of the bony snake-demons suddenly rocketed down the screen like a stupid dog that hears mail being pushed through the letterbox, crushing Gary beneath its vast bulk while the boss rides on top. I should have known this was going to happen. There are clues everywhere. It says "DIE" in big letters right over there! Of course, I was killed by this attack the next time it happened, and the next time, and the time after that. I think this is because I was trying to concentrate on several different things at once and that never works out well for me. I can either dodge the snakes, avoid the projectiles or keep away from the boss himself, Nitro Ball, but I can't do all three. Not at my age.


The final stage is the Space Station, and I was a little worried it wasn't going to be as interesting as the earlier stages, but then I noticed the regular enemies are Terminators and my fighting spirit was reinvigorated. Not just Terminators, but Terminators that roll into balls when you shoot them and careen around the screen. Skynet's remorseless armadillo battalion, that's what you get in Nitro Ball. I haven't seen Terminator Genisys, partly out of an irrational hatred of the word "genisys," but I have to assume that it would be vastly improved if all the Terminators could roll up like woodlice.


If you're looking for Gary in this screenshot, good luck. You can just about see his hand on the very left edge of the screen, because he's been sucked out of an open airlock and into the vacuum of space. Episodes of Nitro Ball must get incredible ratings, viewership figures high enough that the company behind it put money into building an actual space station and launching it into orbit instead of using a set decorated with tin foil and flashing lights. Maybe Nitro Ball is so popular that it's created an unshakeable social connection between all of Earth's peoples, and now that they're united by a love of Nitro Ball they've stopped having wars and can therefore spend all their former military budgets on constructing interstellar death-traps. It must be a weird time to be a NASA scientist, is what I'm saying.


Then the chicken mascot from the first stage reappeared as a cyber-chicken. He's still wearing dungarees. Why would you go to all the trouble of becoming a cool cyborg and then ruin it by dressing like a toddler? You're a goddamn enigma, Cyborg Chicken Mascot.
As I approach the end of Nitro Ball, I can tell you with some confidence that it's a really fun game. It's fast, relentless and exciting, and despite almost every one of its constituent parts being ripped off from somewhere else it still manages to feel unique. It looks really nice, (even though I had some emulation issues in the Alien stage,) with plenty of small details and fun enemies. Even the soundtrack is above average:



Is there anything I'd change about the game to make it better? I'm not sure. As much as I enjoy twin-stick shooters I don't think that particular control scheme would work here, at least not without some major rejigging - a lot of the bosses would be laughably easy if you could still shoot at them while moving away from them. Auto fire would have been a nice addition, because I don't often get sore thumbs playing shooters but by the end of Nitro Ball my firin' finger was definitely feeling the burn. A "dodge" move would be a fun addition, and I do mean more for fun than anything else, because while it'd be helpful to dive out of the way of certain attack, like the monster snakes during the Aliens World boss fight, mostly it'd just be cool.


The final boss is a robot overlord with two additional brains located in the towers by his sides, and in one final display of "inspiration" Data East made the boss' face look just like a Cylon from the original Battlestar Galactica, complete with phasing red lights in its visor. In for a penny and all that.
As is to be expected from your last opponent, the robo-brain is a real challenge and will not hesitate to suddenly fill the screen with a deluge of projectiles that puts most bullet-hell shooters to shame. If that's not enough, his side-towers are seemingly part brain, part robot and part enormous deadly yo-yos that whip around the screen trying to flatten you. It's a fun battle, even if by this point my thumb was begging me to stop, and in the end I managed to triumph through sheer gumption and thoroughly abusing the Z Weapon.


Gary is now the Nitro Ball champion, so that's where the fame comes from. The wealth is a result of picking up all those ocean liners and grand pianos. What's more, he's miraculously still alive to enjoy these things, so what else could Gary possibly want out of life?


He became a president! Not the president, a president. President Tiny Head, specifically. Makes sense to me, who wouldn't vote for the man who survived Nitro Ball, a man who spent his winnings on a set of Iron Man-esque armour that looks like business suit with just his head poking out? No-one's going to try to assassinate him, that's for damn sure. All hail President Gary, that's what I say.
The other characters also have endings, and because they all have different dreams they claim different rewards. There's a third, yellow character the only appears on three-player versions of the Nitro Ball machine, and he uses his wealth and fame to become a king, crown, ermine robe and all. Harry - sweet, uncomplicated Harry - "bought luxury cars." Harry is not a man overburdened by ambition.


The credits roll, and with a final special thanks to Steve Miller - presumably not the space cowboy / gangster of love - Nitro Ball comes to a close. It's a rare day here at VGJunk, because I've found a bona fide hidden gem of a game, and when the games I play are almost always either shite or well-known then that's something to celebrate. If you want arcade action and beefy men called Gary, then Nitro Ball delivers and you see it out in the wild about as often as Lord Lucan, so if you play it you can have fun and increase your level of videogame hipsterism. All in all, a strong recommendation from me and I might even go back and play it again. Maybe this time I'll try the three-player mode and find out what the other character's name is, although if it's not Larry or Barry I will be extremely upset.

23/04/2016

GLADIATOR (ARCADE)

Today's game is Allumer and Taito's 1986 arcade adventure Gladiator, but the title's a little misleading. There's no Colosseum, no sneering emperor pronouncing judgement on the lives of the participants, no animals imported from distant lands. There's fighting, sure, but it's not a fight for the glory of honourable combat or even simply to survive - instead the hero wants to get rich, via the tried-and-true method of stabbing dozens of people. In Japan the game's known as Ougon no Shiro, or Castle of Gold, and that's a much more accurate name. Less a gladiator match, more a gauntlet of traps and enemies. Oh hey, they should have called it Gauntlet! Wait, never mind.


Is this your first time riding a horse, sir? It's okay, equestrianism isn't for everyone. Hopefully we can find you a nice tricycle or something. Maybe even a doctor to fix your neck.
Despite the promise of the title screen, horses do not feature in this game at all. I think that's probably for the best, on this evidence.


Gladiator wastes no time in pitching you into a life-or-death struggle, as you inch through the corridors of a castle while someone or some thing throws a relentless stream of fireballs, bats and knives at you. That makes it sound a bit like a Castlevania game, but it isn't: Gladiator is a side-scrolling test of reflexes where the key is to defend yourself using your sword and shield. The height of your shield is controlled by moving the joystick up and down, and can be positioned either high, low or in the middle to deflect oncoming attacks. Your sword, on the other hand, is controlled by the game's three buttons - one each for high attack, middle attack and low attack. Using your shield as protection has the benefit of being sturdy and dependable (so long as you're holding it at the right height) where as swinging your sword can leave you vulnerable while you're flailing your arms around but allows for added reach and gives you more points for eliminating any projectiles, and points eventually turn into extra lives.


Our hero is called Great Gurianos, by the way, although I feel a little uncomfortable calling him "Great." Greatness has to be earned, and he didn't seem very great when he was wildly swinging his sword at a bat in an attempt to collect the golden shield it was carrying. I think it was supposed to be a devastating overhead strike, but he looked more like he was casting his line during a relaxing fly-fishing trip.


But what's this? After a couple of minutes of corridor-walking, Gladiator suddenly becomes a one-on-one fight as a warrior straight from the Bondage Dimension appears to block Mediocre Gurianos' path! He looks like a Zardoz cosplayer whose mother wouldn't allow him out of the house until he put on some shorts, but thanks to the game's attract mode I have a little more information than that.


His name is Solon, and he is a sword man. Okay, that checks out, he does appear to be carrying a sword. Sure, I think it might be Sailor Moon's Magic Crystal Dream Sword or what have you, but it's definitely a sword. Well, sword-like. Sword-adjacent. Solon's bio also describes him as a "blockhead fencer," which bodes well for my attempts to stab him to death.


Maybe we're both blockhead fencers. Fencing coaches the world over would look at us and slowly shake their heads, tears of frustration welling up behind their beekeeper's masks. It's our fighting stances, you see. They're very top-heavy. Leaning over on your tippy-toes might give you a little extra range, lads, but it's not good for your balance.
As for the combat, it reminds me a lot of Taito's own Great Swordsman, another one-on-one swordfighting game where a single strike can lead to victory or defeat, and the goal is to land a blow on a vulnerable area of your enemy. However, things here are more complicated than in Great Swordsman, for a couple of reasons. One is the inclusion of shields, which allow you to block at one height while attacking at another. You can also reduce your opponent's shield to a measly stump by attacking it repeatedly, although this never seemed to hamper their ability to block my attacks any. You can also shatter their weapon, which is much more useful.


The main difference is armour, though. Both Gurianos and his foes are wearing suits of armour composed of multiple parts - helmet, breastplate, shinguards, that kind of thing - and a successful hit will knock the corresponding piece of armour off. That's why Solon's not wearing his chest-straps any more; it's because I poked him in the chest with my sword, not because he got too hot and removed them or decided that he wasn't into BDSM after all. Once a body part's armour has been stripped off, a subsequent blow to that same area will prove fatal. For a game from 1986 to have such large sprites with visible damage is very impressive, and there's even a bit of sampled speech, so Gladiator is a title that would probably have stood out in the arcades of the time.


Unfortunately for Solon, his title of blockhead fencer turned out to be accurate. I held my shield up high, and all he did was attack my shield over and over like I'd taped a picture of a large spider to it. That left me free to aim for his bare chest. That ended the fight fairly quickly. My reward? Another fight against Solon. Then another. Three Solons in a row, each as thick as the last. Maybe Solon is his surname and they're all brothers. There's a very disappointed Mr. Solon Sr. out there somewhere, regretting not stumping up the cash for a better swordfighting teacher.


Eventually a different challenger appeared before me, resplendent in her bright pink armour. This is Irene, and she is a mighty lady.


See? It says so right there, and who am I to argue? I'm just a shirtless warrior wearing iron pants, I'm not qualified to judge how mighty a lady is. That said, even I noticed that Irene's attacks seemed a little hesitant, and she frequently left herself open if I took a step back and let her swing her sword for a while. Another casualty of over-extending, then, and Irene's lunges towards my rippling adonic chest meant I had lots of opportunity to smash her over the head. Thus Gurianos emerges triumphant from mortal combat with his valour and dignity unsullied.


Until he decided to pose over Irene's corpse, that is. Nice work, Gurianos. Real great of you. I know, I know, if I had muscles like that you wouldn't be able to get a shirt on me without a team of a dozen people and some strong tranquillizers, but maybe now is not the time.
Apparently, in the Japanese version of the game you can strip off all of Irene's clothes for some brief nudity, because, well, Japan. So, if you've ever wanted to see what a cartoon nipple looks like when it's shrunk to the size of a single pixel, play the Japanese version. Or I can save you the time: it looks like a single pink pixel. I sincerely hope the very thought of such a thing has not whipped you into a frenzy of sexual excitement.


After Irene, there's another short section of fireball-blocking and bat-chopping, which illustrates the basic flow of Gladiator's gameplay: walk for a while, fight a few people, walk a bit further and hopefully find the golden shield and the crystal ball the restores your damaged armour. This section also provides an insight into Gurianos that you rarely get for other videogames heroes, and that's that his preferred underwear is purple silk briefs. Look, if you're going to be wearing heavy armour all day you deserve at least a touch of opulence, right?


I guess we know where all those fireballs came from: this Karnov wannabe is spitting them out. He's not important enough to get a bio during the attract mode, so this man will forever remain an enigma. We will never know the reason he chose to wear underpants with a big yellow stain on the front, which now I think about it is kind of a relief. Anyway, to beat this guy simply move towards him, blocking his fireballs with your shield, and then stab him somewhere that isn't his shield.


The stabbing was not fatal, although judging by his expression I suspect he wishes it had been.


Walking up some stairs leads Gurianos to stage two and another short path where he must defend himself. Rather than fireballs and bats, he is now beset by bricks - yes, just regular old house bricks - and golden axes. Maybe Taito should have called this game Golden Axe! Wait, never mind. You can also see a sword on the floor that I managed to knock out of the air: if you press down when standing on it you can collect it for bonus points, and collecting several swords will turn your sword red. For a long time I had no idea if there was any benefit to having a red sword beyond the obvious considerations of style, but supposedly if you hit an opponent's shield fourteen times with the red sword Gurianos temporarily becomes invincible. I see Gladiator takes place in an age of unfathomable magic, then.


Here is a man who went to the blacksmith and demanded that he make him a suit of armour so unique and avant-garde that the rest of the gladiators would be struck dumb with envy. The blacksmith, fearing for his life and desperate for inspiration, cast his eyes desperately around his forge before seeing a bunch of grapes he was saving for his lunch. The blacksmith breathed a sigh of relief.


This is Zaid, a club giant. So, what, like Armand van Helden? No, of course not, he's a giant with a club. Except that's clearly a sword he's carrying, not a club. Zaid is a complicated man. He's also "a big good for nothing fellow," which is coincidentally the job description I have on my business cards.


After a couple of regular Zaids you'll fight Super Zaid and hey, he actually has a club this time. He also has armour so visually repellent that when you're fighting him I'd recommend covering one side of the screen with a sheet of paper and hoping for the best. That's easier than it sounds, because all the various flavours of Zaids seem to attack at the same height as you more often than not, meaning that if you hang back and keep attacking at the middle height you'll eventually break their weapon. That makes it a lot easier to get close and finish them off, especially when you bait him into trying to hit you with his tiny sword hilt.


Once Zaid is defeated, punished by the gods of combat for wearing that goddamn armour, you can press down to steal his mace, which replaces your sword. Hang on, is it stealing if he's dead? Looting, I suppose. Pilfering, maybe. Anyway, you can use his mace, and for a while I was confused as to how this was an upgrade. It's the same length as the sword so your reach is the same, and it's not any more powerful because one hit (well, two hits) is all you need anyway. It wasn't until right at the end of the game that the much more aggressive enemies revealed the true power of the mace: it pushes your opponents further back when you hit them, giving you more breathing space. Make sure you collect the mace, then, because it's almost mandatory for the final few enemies.


Pictured above: Gurianos, about to have his silken briefs punctured by a stray arrow. The arrow was fired by this unnamed warrior woman, an Amazon with the ability to lay down a veritable curtain of arrows and, upon closer inspection, a gaping sore where her face ought to be. Her bright pink sandals are presumably intended to distract from the disgusting ruin of her face. Luckily you don't have to see the Amazon for long, because she's not wearing any armour, and just like the fireball spitter all you need to do is block her arrows as you advance and then introduce her to your sword or mace, whichever you're carrying at the time.


Gurianos has made it out into the fresh air, and a relaxing stroll along the castle battlements awaits. It's the same hot object-blocking action as before, only this time you're deflecting boomerangs and strange pulses of energy that look like an illustration of how radio waves work from a junior school textbook. But VGJunk, you cry, you said this was a relaxing stroll and having axes thrown at my face seems like it'd make me anxious and quite possibly dead rather than relaxed!


Well, hectoring voice in my head, I say that because you can hop up onto the ledges in the background, thus avoiding the entire stage and all its attendant dangers unless you forget to press up to jump over the gaps. Personally I was already getting bored of these bombardment stages, so the option to not participate in them is one I will readily and gratefully take.


You'll be shocked to learn that Gurianos must fight some knights along the way. This one is green, except the parts of him that are pink. He's a one-man public safety announcement about not falling asleep in the sun or buying your armour from a colour-blind blacksmith.
I'm not really sure how I beat these opponents, you know. While some of the enemies do seem to have definite patterns, with these ones I either couldn't spot it or had lost so much interest that my brain refused to absorb it. Instead, I just kept thrusting my sword at their feet. Their swords broke, their shields broke and then eventually they become so consumed with ennui that they let me stab them in the shin, a fatal blow in the days before penicillin.


There's also version in red armour who is not noticeably different from the others aside from the fact that once you've defeated him, Gurianos stamps on the poor sod a couple of times. So much for Great Gurianos. From now on, I'll call you Kinda Petty Gurianos, or Sore Winner Gurianos.


The end of the stage is guarded by a familiar body with a different head and weapons, who wants to stop Gurianos because... well, I don't know, really. All these lives, all this carnage, all this death with no reason or motive. I know Gurianos is supposed to be collecting some gold so is this guy, what, a ye olde rent-a-cop? Give it up, man. It's not worth dying for, and Violent Psychopath Gurianos will not let anyone stand in his way.


Thanks once again to the intro, we can see that this character is called Agathon and he's a clumsy fighter. If these people have been guarding the treasure, then their boss should probably review their hiring policies. There must be someone out there who isn't a clumsy fighter or a blockhead fencer. Agathon's bio also says that he's a Two Swords Man, which I'm not sure I believe. He's got two weapons, yes, but they don't look like swords to me. Lengths of metal piping in a classic arcade beat-em-up fashion maybe. Rolled up magazines? Sure. But not swords.


Oh, I see. Agathon was hiding his swords inside the rolled-up magazines. Clever, very clever. People think you're going to show them an article about a woman whose cat saved her life by calling an ambulance and then bam, three feet of cold steel is enjoying the brand new sights, sounds and smells of their upper intestine. He may be a clumsy fighter, but he makes up for it in cunning, like a fox with its shoelaces tied together.


This castle must be taller than I thought, because I've climbed up to the final stage and it appears to be the featureless void of space. An Oscar statue has come to life and is very carefully peeling all my clothes off with his sword. Things are getting weird in Gladiator, and they're also getting extremely difficult - the Gold Knight is fast, accurate and relentless. To defeat him you'll need every ounce of your concentration and skill, and even then fifty percent of the time he'll suddenly kill you anyway. If there is a strategy for this fight I couldn't tell you what it is. Prayer, possibly.


Every time I beat the Gold Knight it definitely felt more like luck than judgement - as you can see here, he's done a very thorough job of stripping Gurianos down to his kecks - but I'm realising now that all my victories came via hitting the Gold Knight in the legs. Maybe that's his weakness, he's got delicate ankles.


Your final opponent is a skeleton, and now I'm really disappointed that he's not included in the intro because I want to know what his name is. Zartunak, Consumer of Souls? Skinny Dennis? Fat Dennis (it's an ironic nickname)? Maybe he's Death itself, representing Gurianos' ultimate battle - the battle against his own mortality. No, I'm sticking with Skinny Dennis.


Rather than armour, the skeleton simply loses his bones if you manage to hit him until he's nothing more than a floating skull and one bony arm. Naturally this makes it even harder to hit him, but it doesn't hamper his fighting skills any and I died here over and over again. One of those times I simply gave up: we seemed to become locked in a never-ending cycle where the skeleton would block all my attacks but would only swing for my shield. Ten full minutes this went on for, both of us clanging off each other with no progress made and no end in sight until I decided I'd had enough and purposely moved my shield out of the way. You cannot best Death, after all.


Except you totally can, and in our the next battle I managed to kill Skinny Dennis almost immediately. I think the trick is that you have to attack just as he attacks, in the same spot, and hope that your blow lands first. I gambled, and I won. What did I win? Well, I think I might be the first living person ever to see Hell's unholy cathedral, so that's nice. I can't wait to get the photos developed.


At long last, Gurianos has accomplished his goals and reached the treasure place. You know, the place where they keep the treasure. It's one of those parts of the house that you don't have a good name for, like the junk drawer or the cupboard under the stairs. Yup, the treasure place. Amazing.


Gladiator is a decently-constructed game with impressive visuals and plenty of little flourishes and secrets - I never did manage to produce the magic shield that's supposedly in the game - but ultimately it just left me cold. I don't really know why, and I'm sure Gladiator will have its fans, but the walking stages were repetitive and the combat simply wasn't all that fun to me, despite it being mostly above average. It's certainly not as much fun as Great Swordsman, which felt much more precise and less twitchy, and Gladiator just isn't the game for me even if I really love the vault at the end being called the "treasure place." Someone enjoyed it, though, because it was ported to some home computers under the name Great Gurianos (I'd have to imagine he's even less great on the ZX Spectrum) and even received a pseudo-sequel in 1992's Blandia. Maybe I'll check it out some day, on the off chance it tells me what that skeleton's deal was.

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