04/07/2018

SLIGHTLY MAGIC (ZX SPECTRUM)

Today’s article is all about a home computer game by Codemasters, where a wide-eyed cartoon character traverses a castle and its environs, collecting items and using said items to solve puzzles while avoiding enemies and doing some light platforming. That’s right, it’s another eggs-cellent adventure in the famous Dizzy series! No, wait… what do you mean this isn’t a Dizzy game? Are you sure? I mean, it sounds a lot like a Dizzy game, is all. Okay, okay, it’s actually Codemasters and Astonishing Animations’ 1990 ZX Spectrum spooks-and-sorcery-em-up Slightly Magic!


Here’s Slightly now, pulling a proto-Dreamworks face while a haunted tree hovers over him menacingly. There’s not much else a haunted tree can do, really. Drop uncanny, blasphemous acorns on your head, perhaps.
Slightly Magic tells the tale of young Slightly, whose uncle Bigwiz is the castle’s chief thaumaturge.  Bigwiz dashed out of the castle in a hurry, leaving his laboratory door open, as well as forgetting to take his spellbook and magic wand. Oh, and leaving Slightly behind. Oops. Also, a dragon has kidnapped the princess, so it’s up to Slightly to save her, I guess. The game seems strangely non-committal about the whole princess-rescuing business, as though saving her is little more than a side effect of Slightly messing around with his uncle’s magic spells.
Also, the title “Slightly Magic” is making me think of the Queen songs “A Kind of Magic” and “I’m Going Slightly Mad,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where the game got its name from.


Some brief instructions provide us with an immediate goal: collect the wand and spell book, and then find the spells and the catalysts needed to activate them. After that, you’re on your own, and this is definitely a game that I’ll be playing with a walkthrough at hand because I can guarantee some of the puzzles aren’t going to make any sense.


The action begins in the Wizard’s Laboratory. Young Slightly’s over on the right, colour-clashing with the table. The wand and spellbook are immediately visible but uncollectable for the moment: the wand’s behind a wall, and the book’s too high to jump to. Oh, and the dragon on the left will incinerate Slightly in an agonizing fiery death if you touch it, so I suppose we’ll head to the right.


More dragons await, but also the solution to our first problem. That bucket is full of water, and you can pick it up to add to your inventory. Once in your possession, use it near a dragon to extinguish their flames, allowing you safe passage. There’s one bucket for each dragon, and I played the first area a couple of times before realising I should go back and use this first bucket on the previous dragon, because that gives you a more useful route through the castle. Before I go back, though, check out that portrait above the fireplace. Is… is that the princess I’m supposed to be rescuing? Without wanting to be too cruel, I bet Slightly’s relieved that he’s too young to be granted the princess’ hand in marriage, given that she looks like a cross between the Mona Lisa and the female Gremlin from Gremlins 2.


Before we continue, a quick note to say that the version of Slightly Magic I played was for the more powerful 128K version of the Spectrum. There was also a version for the 48K Spectrum, which is pictured above. The gameplay is the same, but as you can see the 48K version has far fewer graphical elements. This is a mixed blessing – less graphics and thus less colour-clashing makes it a bit easier to read exactly what’s happening on-screen, but it does feel rather dull and empty. The graphics are Slightly Magic’s greatest strength, as you might expect from a developer called Astonishing Animations, and having less of them makes Slightly Magic’s rather threadbare gameplay that bit more obvious. The 128K version also has music, with a single tune playing throughout the game that, as is always the way with such things, starts out jolly but eventually becomes akin to having an angry woodpecker shoved up your nose.


Back to dousing dragons, and while juggling (not literally) buckets of water, the first major issue with Slightly Magic rears its ugly head: you can only carry two items in your inventory. Two! I can understand having a limited inventory to some degree, but only having two item slots reduces much of the game to item management, dropping items and then forgetting where you left them when you actually need them. Is this a limitation of the ZX Spectrum’s memory constraints? Probably, but even having three slots would make the game much more palatable. If I was more cynical, I might suggest that the inventory is deliberately limited to two slots to pad the game out a bit.


My spirits (pun one hundred percent intended) were raised when I descended into the cellar and encountered this fantastic-looking ghost. Tendril-like fingers, a jack-o-lantern face with massive eyes, the overall shape of a plastic bag stuck half-way up a tree: excellent, ten out of ten. However, don’t get so distracted by the ghost that you neglect to pick up the small pile of blue pebbles that Slightly is standing next to. Yes, the pebbles that are almost indistinguishable from the background, those pebbles. Fortunately the limitations of the graphics means that Slightly stands “behind” collectable items, which makes them a bit easier to spot. But why do you need a pocket full of gravel?


So you can feed it to this hungry rock, of course. Skulls, ghosts and now cannibalism. Slightly Magic is delving into some deep horror territory. I say cannibalism, maybe all these rocks are part of the same creature and this is just the head. I suppose that’d mean the rock’s eating parts of his own body. How delightful.


Those are the kinds of puzzles that make up Slightly Magic – the “use a specific item in the right place” kind, with no logic puzzles or maths questions or anything like that. Some of the solutions leap right out at you, like using a pin to pop a bubble blocking Slightly’s path or feeding a rock the equivalent of its own toenail clippings. Other are… less obvious. For example, collecting the pin mentioned above involves standing above it and using a magnet to pull it towards Slightly. The problem with this puzzle is that I had no idea that was a pin. I’m not sure what I thought it was – another, smaller, magic wand, perhaps – but maybe the developers should have made the bubble-popping item a slingshot or something. That’d be a lot easier to parse than a diagonal line of pixels.
Neat dragon, mind you, and I can’t fault Slightly Magic on the presentation front. It might not be the most innovative example of the artform – there are a lot of home computers games from this time involving the wacky antics of big-eyed cartoon characters – but Slightly Magic pulls the aesthetic off well, especially in the extremely British-looking character sprites. If you’d told me that Slightly Magic was based on an obscure character from The Beano, I’d have little difficulty believing you.


Now that I’ve collected the spellbook and the wand, we can explore the other kind of puzzle featured in Slightly Magic. There are spells to collect, and each one requires a certain item – a catalyst, if you like – to work with. The first spell you find is the Fright spell, and that one needs a skull to act as fuel. Makes sense to me, especially given the limited selection of items I’ve picked up so far, and most of the spell combinations are equally obvious. Figuring out where to use the spells? That’s a different story.


Turns out you have to use the Fright spell on these ghosts. I don’t think I can be blamed for having to look this one up in the walkthrough, can I? If there’s any creature (super)naturally impervious to being frightened, you’d think ghosts would be it. It’s like using the “water hose” spell to shift a recalcitrant elephant.


But it works, for some reason, and you spook the spooks. I guess the Fright spell is just a DVD of Ghostbusters.


After a little more castle exploration, including using a hearing spell to get past two deaf guards, Slightly happens upon the colossal head of B-Movie legend Tor Johnson. For a moment, I was transfixed, unable to figure out how to get past this enormous slab of head and captivated by the contrast between the cutesy cartoon moon and the more realistic (albeit seemingly carved from butter) bonce. Turns out you have to use the Flea spell on the head, causing the giant to flick you off his head, over the castle’s moat and into the woods beyond.


Hey, that’s Stonehenge back there. I guess that means Slightly Magic takes place in Wardour Castle. A big thank you to the English Heritage website, there.
The gameplay outside the castle is mostly the same as the gameplay inside, although the screens are laid out a bit more horizontally, so it feels like there’s a bit less exploration.


Here’s Slightly using a pair of scissors to snip off the Cheshire Cat’s dangling thingy. It’s a… pendulum, I guess? Not sure why the Cheshire Cat has a pendulum, although maybe it’s supposed to be a reference to those cat-shaped wall clocks with the moving eyes. And there’s the castle, far off in the distance, the giant having apparently hurled Slightly about six miles through the still night air.


The main goal of this section is to find the Fish spell, which is easier said than done when the ground is littered with deadly banana peels. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before, but I once genuinely saw my friend slip on a banana peel while walking down the street and it might be the funniest thing I’ve ever been privy too. You just can’t beat the classics, can you? I spent the rest of the day looking out for chickens on zebra crossings.
Slightly Magic has a strange set of hazards, actually. They’re split into two categories: ones that drain your magic bar when you touch them (mostly “enemy” creatures like the ghosts) and ones that kill you outright should you bump into them, like the banana peel or the dragons’ fire. There are some issues with this system. There are no audio or visual cues when you’re taking magic damage besides the gauge going down, so it’s easy to lose a bunch of magic without realising. As for the instant death objects, they’re so small and so infrequent that I completely forgot about them most of the time – until the tragicomic moment of banana-related trauma.


Slightly has regressed down the pathways of evolution and become a fish. Yes, I skipped a couple of steps here but not as many as you’d think. The main one was using a watering can on a patch of yellow grass, causing it to turn into fish-friendly water. Yeah, back to the walkthrough for that one, and after a couple of attempts I also slapped on an infinite magic POKE for the underwater area because unless you know the exact route needed to collect the right items and the stars that refill your magic bar, you’ll run out of energy and die. Even if you do run through this section with perfect accuracy, it’s a close run thing.
Excellent octopuses, mind you. They’re getting damned close, visually, to being aliens from the cover of a nineteen-fifties pulp magazine and frankly that’s how octopuses should look.


The whole point of travelling beneath the waves is to find an explosive spell to destroy this rock wall, which would be a simple task if it wasn’t for the limitations of your magic meter. Slightly Magic is definitely a game about rote memorisation, the kind of now-familiar home computer adventure whose difficulty lies in the often obscure relationship between the items you’re holding and the nondescript piece of scenery you’re supposed to be using them on. There’s little to no challenge supplied by Slightly Magic’s platforming elements, that’s for sure. They’re included purely to get our hero from one place to the next, although that is made a bit more difficult by having Slightly refuse to jump upwards if there’s any kind of obstruction anywhere near his oversized noggin.


Again, I can’t fault the presentation. Not when one of the screens if naught but a massive witch flying through the night sky, or at least hovering in place in the night sky. It’s been a long time since Halloween, and this kind of thing helps to keep me going.


Here we see a particularly frustrating example of the deadly banana skins, with this one being almost camouflaged with the background grass. We can also see the witch’s lair, and she’s taken the idea of the gingerbread house to disturbing new levels by using gingerbread people as the very bricks of her dark abode. And she didn’t bake that gingerbread, either…


Inside are Hansel and Gretel, transformed into gingerbread by the witch and thus revealing the horrible truth that the witch’s house is build from mutilated human bodies. Somewhere, Rob Zombie is hurriedly scribbling some production notes for his latest horror remake.


Having acquired the ability to transform into a bird and fly freely through the clouds (for as long as his magic lasts), Slightly can gather the items need to make further progress. These include a spoonful of sugar, stolen from the tip of the witch’s nose, and a dead mouse that you need to feed to some more Cheshire Cats in order to placate them. It’s a lot like the swimming section except, you know, up. The transformation effects are fun and there are a decent amount of them, and I can’t help but think that Slightly Magic would have been more fun if it was entirely about changing into the right shape for the task at hand.


In a display of truly shocking callousness, given their situation, Slightly confronts Hansel and Gretel with a cooking spell. They’re going to be having screaming terrors next time someone pulls out a joint and says “let’s get baked,” never mind when another practitioner of magic waves a cooking spell at them. As it happens, it’s more of an un-cooking spell and the kids are returned to their human forms, free to return to the loving embrace of their family. Oh, right, yeah, the Hansel and Gretel story. Well, I’m sure they’ll be fine in the woods as long as they keep their eyes peeled for banana skins, oh ho ho.


Getting past the kids brings you to the game’s final area, a short underground grotto where you can meet the livid – both in temperament and colour – dragon who is the cause of all this mischief. Except the child-abducting witch, I think she’s out there doing her own thing without any help from the dragon. The princess is right there, waiting patiently to be rescued and perhaps slightly aggrieved that her saviour is not a knight in shining armour but a child in a nighty.


The solution to all your problems is located in an alcove in the cavern wall: a bottle of suntan lotion to soothe the dragon’s sunburn. Except isn’t suntan lotion intended to prevent sunburn in the first place? What this dragon needs is some nice cool aloe vera cream or something. Maybe a big floppy hat for next time.


With the cream liberally applied, the dragon is soothed and Slightly Magic draws to a close. In a nice subversion of the usual expectations, the princess is quick to dismiss the idea of marrying Slightly, presumably because he’s a child. Looking at the princess, Slightly might have dodged a bullet on this one.


And that’s your lot – another quintessentially British ZX Spectrum inventory-management-platformer-thing is over. Don’t worry, it’s not like I’m going to run out, there are thousands of the bloody things. So, how did Slightly Magic score as an example of the genre? It gets a resounding “eh” from me. It’s okay, I suppose. It looks nice, certainly, with lots of charmingly-pixelled creatures and some fun animations like the wobbliness of the ghosts and Slightly’s crouching pose where he folds up into his robes. The gameplay, though: it’s just kinda there, sometimes frustrating with hard-to-decipher puzzles but mostly tootling along at a decent pace. A perfectly average example of the genre, then, although I might be being a bit harsh on it because this isn’t a genre a really enjoy all that much in the first place. And hey, if you’re not convinced by my opinions on things – a perfectly reasonable position to take – then you can check out Slightly Magic for yourself because there’s a “remastered” version available to buy on Steam right now. If you do pick it up I hope you have more fun than I did, and remember: if you are going to have an accident then try to do it by slipping on a banana peel. The world needs laughter, now more than ever.

23/06/2018

WWF WRESTLEMANIA: STEEL CAGE CHALLENGE (NES)

Here’s one for all you Hulkamaniacs, Macho Men and whatever the collective name for a group of Jake “The Snake” Roberts fans is – Snakeamaniacs, maybe? No, too derivative. Let’s call ‘em Snake Buddies, a cheerful name to help counter the testosterone-laden heel-face feuds of the World Wrestling Federation. Hey, did you know Jake The Snake’s real first name is Aurelian? I would have gone with that for my ring name, it sounds cool as heck. Aurelian, The Golden Man, beats his opponents over the head with gold ingots. Neat. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, today’s game is Sculptured Software and (whisper it and tremble) LJN’s 1992 NES grapple-em-up WWF Wrestlemania: Steel Cage Challenge!


Here’s a title screen that really live up to that name, with the game’s title taking up seventy-five percent of the screen and leaving you in no doubt that this is a product of the World Wrestling Federation. Of course, the WWF is now known as World Wrestling Entertainment – something about a lawsuit involving pandas, I hear – but it’ll always be the WWF to me and, I suspect, a lot of people my age. I know nothing about the current state of wrestling, but back in the early nineties it was immensely popular with the youth, enjoying something of a golden age as famous stars like Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior and The Undertaker became the idols of young fans across the world. I’ve got fond memories of that WWF era, so it’s nice to see some of these larger-than-life characters again.
Speaking of Hulk Hogan, the self-confessed steroid-guzzling racist takes up the other 25% of the title screen. It’s a pretty decent bit of artwork, apart from the eyes, which have rolled back into the Hulkster’s skull in a manner that suggests either ice cubes down his trunks or demonic possession.


With little in the way of an introduction besides a gameplay demo, let’s get to the various types of wrasslin’ we can enjoy. One-on-one or tag-team modes are available, in either single bouts or nine-fight runs to the championship belt, and for the purposes of this article I’ll be aiming for the WWF Championship itself.


After that, it’s time to pick which of the ten wrestlers in the game you’ll be playing as. For me, the choice was easy: I went with Ted “The Million Dollar Man” DiBiase, a wrestler who was always one of my favourites. I was definitely a “root for the villains” kind of kid, the type who wanted Skeletor to beat He-Man just once, and DiBiase’s character – a millionaire who bought people off and acted smug while wearing a sequinned tuxedo – appealed to a less worldly-wise VGJunk who hadn’t yet been exposed to the worst excesses of capitalism. I sincerely hope Ted DiBiase himself came up with the idea for the character, because that’d mean he said “hey guys, I’ve come up with a great character for me: an extremely wealthy bastard. Of course, you’d have to pay for me to have first-class flights and accommodation and loads of spending money. You know, to maintain the illusion.” Genius, absolute genius.


My first opponent will be The Mountie. He’s, well, a mountie. But get this – he’s an evil mountie, prone to electrocuting his opponents with a cattle prod. Canada didn’t appreciate the name of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police being dragged through the sweaty, baby-oiled mud and demanded the WWF stop using the Mountie character in Canada. Okay, maybe not demanded. It’s Canada, after all. They probably asked politely.



Time for the actual sports entertainment, and as with most other wrestling games the aim is to win the bout by either pinning your opponent for three seconds or having them stay outside the ring for ten seconds – plus another variant we’ll see in a while. Pins are the most common way to win, but before you can get your opponent on the canvas for the full three seconds you’ll need to drain their energy bar using the variety of wrestling moves at your disposal. The most basic are punches and kicks, good for softening up your foe and leaving them open for more powerful and wrestling-appropriate moves.


Initiating a grapple is as simple as walking into your opponent, and once you’re in there it’s all about who’s got the advantage. In the screenshot above, Ted’s in charge. You can tell by the way he’s leaning forwards, and once you’re in that position you can perform a couple of moves, namely slamming your opponent onto the mat or headbutting them right in the face. Apparently you can also throw the grapplee into the ropes, although I don’t think I ever managed to pull that move off for some reason: either the controls listed in the manual are wrong, or the timing on the button-press is far tighter than it needs to be.
As with so many wrestling games of the era, the key to success is button mashing. Yes, get your thumb-brace out of storage, have an ice bath at hand, maybe do one hundred thumbs up as a warm-up because you’re going to be pressing the A button a lot. When you’re in a grapple, if you don’t have the advantage you can regain it if you hammer the A button quickly enough, and given that the CPU opponents do little but invade your personal space at every opportunity winning the grapple contests is mandatory to get past any of the game’s bouts.


Other moves available include a couple of running attacks, most notably something that you could charitably call a flying body press but which looks more like a child pretending to be Superman, and the ability to stomp on grounded foes or slam them with an elbow drop. The Mountie doesn’t put up too much resistance, and by combining the grapples and literally kicking a man while he’s down you should be able to make it through this first match comfortably enough. One proviso here is trying for the pin can be agonisingly fiddly, an considering the command to pin is as simple as "down and B" it always took me about fifty attempts while standing in various different spots before Ted would realise that yes, I do want him to lay down on top of this sweaty, semi-conscious pile of muscle.


Then it’s onward to the next match, and the next, until you’re the champion. Fight number two pits Ted DiBiase against the wrestler who was, at the time of this game’s release, his tag-team partner: it’s Irwin R. Schyster! Schyster is another wrestler I liked as a kid, again because of his ridiculous gimmick: he was an evil tax man. Oh, you wags, I can hear you saying “is there any other kind of tax man?” at the back. Schyster (real name Mike Rotunda) wrestled while wearing suspenders and a tie to complete the financial look, and it’s one of those daft but visually striking characters that made the WWF of the time so appealing to kids – although I’ll admit that having Ted DiBiase and Irwin R. Schyster as two of my favourite wrestlers made me something of an outlier.


The match itself unfolded pretty much identically to the first, although I did discover you can climb up to the top turnbuckle and launch aerial attacks. A welcome gameplay feature to be sure, and one that should be mandatory for any wrestling videogame, but a fighting technique of very limited usefulness. By the time you’ve given your opponent a thorough enough beating that they’ll lie on the canvas long enough for you to complete the extremely slow process of moving to the corner, climbing up the ropes, getting into position and then jumping, you might as well just pin them.


Coming up next is Bret “Hitman” Hart, a favourite of many young WWF fans, and still regarded as one of the greatest performers in the sport and reading that he’s now sixty years old forced me to contemplate the relentless march of time that grinds away at all humanity until we’re nothing more than dust. On a more cheerful note, Bret Hart was also the chief proponent of what I still think of as “wrestler hair” - long, lank, wet and stringy, like seaweed in a paper shredder.


At last, the steel cage is introduced to Steel Cage Challenge. Every third fight in the championship mode takes place in the cage, where to win you have to knock down you opponent long enough to allow you to scale the cage and escape. Other than that it’s identical to a non-cage match, so have at it with the punches and body slams until your opponent’s tired enough to need a good long lie down.


One interesting quirk of the steel cage matches is that the CPU wrestlers don’t seem to realise that the springy, yielding ropes have been replaced with a ruddy great metal cage. This means that occasionally, as pictured above, they’ll sprint across the ring as though they’re planning to bounce off the ropes, only to smash face-first into the cage and fall over. Hey, I’ll take whatever help I can get.


Back to a regular ring for the match against Sid Justice, perhaps better known as Sid Vicious, a hulking six-foot-nine powerhouse. Looking at the game’s sprites, you’ll see that this is not communicated visually by Steel Cage Challenge. That’s a real problem with this game - none of the wrestlers feel unique. The sprites aren’t bad, given the NES’s limitations at the scale the characters are drawn in, but every wrestler is the same height, have the same movement animations and, worst of all, they all have the same moves. There aren’t even any of the WWF superstars’ trademark special moves included. No Sharpshooter leg hold for Bret Hart, no Hulk Hogan leg drop, not even Ted DiBiase's legendary Million Dollar Dream which was, erm, kind of a bog-standard choke hold. I’d argue that the entire appeal of a WWF videogame is the chance to play as your favourite of these larger-than-life characters, but in steel cage challenge you’re selecting a sprite and nothing more.


Ooh yeah, it’s Macho Man Randy Savage, and he’s doing an elbow drop – but so can every other wrestler in the game. It’s all terribly disappointing, and sadly I must report that the gameplay isn’t good enough to rescue the game, either. The interchangeable characters mean that there’s almost no strategy to the game at all, and if you want to win there’s really only one tactic. Land a couple of punches to nick a notch or two off your opponent’s health bar, and then keep grabbing them and hammer the A button. If you have the health advantage, you’ll win almost every single grapple and headbutt your foe, leaving them in the perfect position to grapple them again immediately and headbutt them over and over. Trying to deviate from this strategy usually means your opponent will beat you in the grapple, the lack of moves gives you no chance to try something new and fights quickly devolve into the same headbutt-headbutt-pin situation.


The first time I lost was against the late Rowdy Roddy Piper, who wasn’t actually Scottish but who did star in They Live and as such he’s all right by me. I managed to lose when Roddy escaped the cage, because for some reason Ted refused to get up after a knockdown despite having some energy left. Roddy also has some energy left even though I spent five minutes using my forehead to perform some admittedly crude rhinoplasty. You see, Steel Cage Challenge has an unusual mechanic where, when the CPU gets low on health, they instantly recover a chunk of their energy bar. Presumably this was intended to keep the fight interesting, because if they’ve suddenly got more energy than you they’re going to start winning a lot more grapples, and if you’re running at a deficit energy-wise it’s very difficult to mount a comeback. I wish, then, that I’d realised I could restore my own low health once a fight by pressing select before the very last match.


Next up is The Phenom himself, the terrifying and mysterious Undertaker, who is entirely devoid of any sense of menace or power in this game because he’s the same size as everyone else and he has the exact same head as Ted DiBiase. His little status portrait isn’t helping, he looks more like Danny McBride than The Demon of Death Valley.
By this point Steel Cage Challenge has more than revealed itself to be a very limited offering, almost entirely devoid of excitement once you’ve played a couple of matches and realised there’s simply not much to it. I haven’t played much of the other NES WWF games, but I’d be surprised if Steel Cage Challenge wasn’t the least interesting of the bunch.


I mean, come on, Jake the Snake doesn’t even have a snake! He’s just a bloke called Jake at this point. Okay, that’s a bit harsh on Jake “again, Aurelian’s a way cooler name” Robert’s wrestling skills, but as those wrestling moves don’t appear here – not even the iconic DDT which Roberts is famous for popularising – I feel okay with judging his appearance here solely on his lack of reptiles. No snakes, zero out of ten, please hold still while I load you up with more headbutts than a flock of goats on a rowdy night out in Glasgow.


The final match is against, of course, Hulk Hogan. Hogan’s sprite is at least recognisable as the Hulkster, although that’s probably less due to artistic endeavour and more because of Hogan’s huge fame and the fact that very few other people look like someone stood a sofa on its end and glued a mop to the top.
Hogan is far more difficult to beat than the other wrestlers – or at least he would be if the same headbutting train didn’t work on him. If he does get loose, though, you might be in trouble because he’ll pile on the damage, being especially fond of kicking you while you’re laid out on the canvas wishing you’d picked a less injurious career, like “training police dogs without the padded suit” or “human anvil.”


You also seem to stay floored a lot longer against Hogan than when flattened by other wrestler, presumably to give Hogan a massive advantage when it comes to escaping the steel cage. On the plus side, this game does feature a chiptune version of Hogan’s “Real American” theme music, a song so on-the-nose that it wraps around to being endearing and hey, the central message of the song is admirable, I suppose.


And there you have it – The Million Dollar man is the new WWF Champion and he’s got the belt to prove it. His forehead has vanquished many a foe and now he’s king of the ring (except not, like King of the Ring) after a real royal rumble (again, not the Royal Rumble.) Actually, Steel Cage Challenge is very similar to the 1993 SNES / Megadrive WWF Royal Rumble game, also created by Sculptured Software for LJN, to the point where you could almost consider it a port of sorts. The 16-bit version is definitely superior, mind you.


I’d hesitate to call WWF Wrestlemania: Steel Cage Challenge a terrible game, because the gameplay here mostly works fine and it definitely contains those promised steel cages, but it’s certainly not a good game. Not repetitive, too beholden to the same patterns to get you through the fights and almost completely lacking the razzmatazz and spectacle that is the absolute, foundational point of the WWF. I’m guessing Sculptured Software weren’t give much in the way of time or budget to get this one made, especially considering they were pumping out WWF games on different consoles every year in the early nineties. You might get a bit more fun out of it if you’re playing with a friend, but on the whole it’s almost as effective as sending you for a snooze as the Million Dollar Dream itself.

21/06/2018

LED STORM: RALLY 2011 (ARCADE)

It feels like it’s been a while since I covered a really arcade-y arcade game. I’m still not sure exactly what I mean by arcade-y, but I know it when I see it and I’ve seen it in Capcom’s 1988 top-down racer LED Storm: Rally 2011. So, let’s take a look at it, then, and enjoy the predictions that Capcom made about road conditions in the distant future / recent past of 2011.


I am at a loss to explain what “LED” means in this context. I thought maybe it was a corruption of “lead,” intended to conjure up images of heavy metal and, erm, leaded petrol, but that doesn’t feel right. Some of the artwork and advertisements for the game’s home computer versions claim it stands for “Lazer Enhanced Destruction,” but that explanation wilts in light of the game’s complete lack of lazers (or even lasers.) I suspect it was chosen simply to sound cool, much like how “vanishing” apparently became associated with fast cars in Japanese media.


As for the plot, two chaps challenge one another to a cross country race. The winner presumably receives the large pile of cash, although no prize is ever explicitly mentioned so maybe they’re a couple who just won the lottery and decided to embark on a futuristic cyber-race as a means of spending their new-found wealth. Hopefully this attempt to keep the ennui of the ultra-rich at bay will also keep their relationship alive and healthy.


Here’s the world map, showing the nine stages we’ll be racing through as we head from Capital to SkyCity.009. Oh, and your car talks to you because it’s the future. Looks like Capcom predicted SatNav with this game, although rather than a soothing female voice asking you to turn left in three hundred yards, you get a squawking robot constantly pestering you about energy. The voice identifies itself as “Mac.” Possibly. The voice sample’s a little muddy, so it could be Zack, but given that it says “MC” at the bottom of the screen I’m sticking with Mac.


And then you’re racing, blasting across the elevated highways of Capital City, bumping the other road users out of the way and – I hope – collecting every petrol can and energy pick-up along the way. You’re going to need them. You can see the rival blue car towards the bottom of the screen, although (perhaps surprisingly) you don’t actually need to beat your rival to the finish line. They’re mostly there to get in your way, often re-appearing towards the end of the stage to nudge you off the course. Probably not your romantic partner, then, what with you racing a couple of miles above the distant city below and all.


Being a highly advanced robo-car, you’ve got a couple of tricks up your wheel arches. The main one is jumping, which you can perform either with a button press or by hitting one of the ramps that litter the track for a much higher leap. The game’s attract mode calls them “jumping slopes,” but that’s an unnecessarily grandiose title to be applied to something that’s barely more technologically advanced that the bike ramps you’d build as a kid from the planks you nicked from a building site.
Jumping is an important skill to master in LED Storm. You can squash other cars by jumping on them, and there are frequent gaps in the tracks or patches of speed-reducing mud or gravel that must be hopped over. However, the most vital use of the jump is in collecting extra fuel, because most of the time energy pick-ups gently drift across the course while suspended from balloons. With all the complaints that increased regulations have made Formula 1 less interesting to watch, hopefulyl the pit lanes will be replaced by helium balloon in the near future. That ought to liven things up.


The jumping is so important that when a small squad of skinny golden mechanoids – distant relatives of Crow T. Robot, perhaps – jumps onto your car and hangs on for dear life, it is in your best interests to shake them off as quickly as possible by veering from side-to-side because you can’t jump while they’re on there. It’s a really nice touch, and right from the off LED Storm has a lot of charm in its futuristic cityscapes, sci-fi vehicles and cavorting, capering, spoiler-grabbing robots.


Oh, and you can transform your car into a motorcycle at the press of a button, complete with a really nice transformation animation situation. My personal high watermark for vehicular transformations is Inspector Gadget’s car, and LED Storm’s car-to-bike switch is approaching that level so I spent a lot of time switching back and forth when I might have been better served by trying not to crash.
However, there doesn’t seem to be much point to the transformation. Having played all the way through this game a couple of times with a roughly fifty/fifty split between car and bike, I could see almost zero differences between them. The car mode might be slightly more robust when it comes to collisions, but it’s a very subtle difference if a difference even exists at all. I had thought that the narrower sprite of the bike might make it better for squeezing through small gaps, but the hitbox of the car and bike seems to be the same size. The transformation aspect is kinda redundant, then, but that doesn’t stop it looking cool.


As you’d expect, the first stage is relatively straightforward, and after slaloming through a convoy of trucks, our plucky little car-bike rockets across the finish line of the first stage without running out of fuel. I managed to collect plenty of energy capsules along the way, which meant I never got low on fuel but it did have the drawback of Mac shouting “energy!” every time I fuelled up, his voice sample carrying the unmistakeable cadence of someone who’s starting to get frustrated about having to explain energy to someone who just doesn’t get it.


Mac likes to complain. He’s a whiner, a whinger, and his wheedling voice piping up with “you’re running out of energy!” will become an annoyingly common occurrence as the game continues.


The second stage is the Netwood Forest, presumably named for these large net-like trees that conveniently allow any passing cars on a cross-country race to be seen through their sparse foliage. This time, the creatures hanging from the car are hopping, rabbit-like creatures, so I felt a little bad about shaking them off my car at 250 kilometres an hour. In my defence, without being able to jump I would have run out of energy and thus had to hear more of Mac’s complaining, so I’m sure the rabbits will understand and accept my actions.


This stage is far more open than the first, lacking clear roads a lot of the time, and so you’re free to move around horizontally much more than before while enjoying the robotic wildlife and trying not to plough face-first into a tree. It’s fast-paced, constantly driving the player forward into a stream of colourful opponents and hazards that zip by with impressive smoothness. That said, the main thing that caught my attention in this stage was the music. Here, give stage two’s theme a listen and see if it reminds you of anything.



There’s a riff in there that sure sounds a lot like the Dr. Wily Castle theme from Mega Man 2, huh? As it turns out, LED Storm’s composer is none other than Takashi “Ogeretsukun” Tateishi, who also created the music for Mega Man 2 – and given the 1988 date on both games it seems likely he was working on both soundtracks at around the same time and a bit of cross-pollination set in. On the whole the soundtrack is quite good, with plenty of high-energy tracks, although some of them do feel like they belong in a different game – one that’s a traditional platformer or something rather than a futuristic racing game.


Heading back to actual (if dangerously under-maintained) roads for the Coral Sea stage, where the tranquil blue waters provide a stark contrast to the huge robot woodlice that sit right in the middle of the bloody road, requiring a lot of nimble manoeuvring to get past. Sadly, your vehicle doesn’t do nimble manoeuvring. Not well, at least. Often times, I found the vehicle’s hitbox would clip things behind you, obstacles I felt I’d completely avoided, which made for the occasional frustrating moment in what is otherwise a game that plays perfectly adequately.


I think there’s an explanation for some of the rough edges to be found in LED Storm: Rally 2011. You see, I’ve actually covered this game before, sort of. Many years ago I wrote about another top-down arcade racer from Capcom, a game that was called Mad Gear (yes, like the Final Fight villains) or, in some markets, LED Storm. As it turns out, LED Storm: Rally 2011 is actually an earlier version of that game. Capcom weren’t happy with the way the Rally 2011 version was turning out, so according to former Capcom designer (and co-creator of Street Fighter II and Final Fight) Akira Nishitani, he was tasked with changing things around to ultimately produce the Mad Gear version of the game.


The changes that were made are a little strange. Most of the gameplay is identical, as is the soundtrack, and while the stages were reworked and shuffled around a bit they’re mostly the same. One of the biggest changes is that the transforming car of the Rally 2011 version was replaced by a selection of three vehicles – a Porsche, a Formula 1 car and a lorry – that the player could pick from. Another is that the futuristic, sci-fi designs of the cars, helicopters and other vehicles were replaced with more realistic vehicles and frankly this seems like a major downgrade. The original version of LED Storm has some really appealing vehicle designs – long-legged bug-shaped cars that look like moon rovers from a sixties comic book, bulbous TNT-carrying trucks, galloping cyber-ostriches – and the idea that replacing them with regular cars would somehow be more appealing to arcade players is baffling to me.


Fortunately most of the interesting scenery was kept intact, with things like the lava-dwelling dinosaurs and giant stone heads that must have crept in from a Konami game helping to keep things interesting. I mean, whatever vehicle you’re driving, you can’t argue with a section spent escaping from the collapsing skeleton of a colossal dinosaur. That could even make a unicycle look cool.


Halfway through the game, and Mac pops up with some encouraging words. I think they’re encouraging, anyway. Reading them again I’d accept that they could also sound like Mac is simply resigned to his fate.


Here in Million Valley, where the vast stone walls loom around the player and someone forgot to close the back of this truck and oh no now there are highly advanced future-containers all over the road, I came to the conclusion that LED Storm has a problem with difficulty. It’s not just that it’s hard, although it is a difficult game, but it's that the difficulty level fluctuates wildly from stage to stage. Maybe less time spent redrawing all the vehicle sprites and more effort putting the stages into a more sensible order would have helped the game.


This is definitely one of those arcade games I’d recommend playing on the easiest difficulty setting, though. This is entirely down to the rigmarole of having to collect fuel. The fuel acts as a timer, because it depletes even when you’re not moving, and it drains so quickly that missing a few energy capsules in a row means that there’s little you can do to stop yourself from grinding to a halt. I know the fuel limitations are there to increase the amount of money people were pumping into the arcade cabinet, but that was back in 1988. That was then and this is now, and at this moment in time I don’t feel the need to prove myself to a thirty-year-old racing game. Having to concentrate on collecting fuel detracts from the enjoyment of the high-speed action and the vibrant, character-packed scenery, so anything that helps to keep the fuel gauge at bay comes with my highest recommendation.


So LED Storm: Rally 2011 is a prototype of sorts, but the question is was it ever released? Perhaps. I suspect that it was put out for location testing at the very least because (a) that’d explain why Capcom though it required a rework and b) there are home computer ports of LED Storm and they’re all based on this version, futuristic cars and all. The home ports are quite good, by most accounts, although even in the Amiga version the graphics suffered a significant downgrade and the colour and vibrancy of the action is probably LED Storm’s strongest suit.


Going back to the start of the article, and I’d have to say that yes, LED Storm is a very arcade-y game. You might well disagree, but for me the top-down racer has always been a genre I associate with the arcades in particular for reasons I can’t adequately explain. Maybe I played a lot of them on my rare childhood visits to the arcades, although my arcade memories are mostly of Capcom fighting games and Side Pocket.
But LED Storm feels arcade-y in other ways, too, even if it lacks the sense of overblown, screaming bigness that makes games like Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Operation Wolf feel like quintessential arcade games. LED Storm does have those bold colours, graphics that handily surpass the home consoles of the time, it’s got voice samples that impress even as Mac’s constant greedy clamouring for fuel grates on the nerves like a screaming baby on the bus. Yep, feels like an arcade game to me.


None of that matters if the game isn’t any fun to play, but I’m happy to report that LED Storm is an enjoyable little title. In fact, I think I enjoyed it more this time around than I did when I played Mad Gear. The extra interested generated by all the cars looking like vehicles from a non-existent eighties toyline about hot-rod gangs from Neptune helps, but I think it’s more that I happened to be in a state of mind where a simple, uncomplicated arcade racer was just what I fancied. The relentless pace of the gameplay keeps you invested and makes a short run-time feel packed with incident rather than disappointingly brief, and the fact you don’t lose lives (just fuel) for falling of the track or crashing into a huge truck helps prevent the obstacle-strewn courses from becoming too frustrating.


As the red car and the blue car scream over the finishing line, I’m left with the knowledge that I’m going to have this old Milky Way advert stuck in my head for the next few weeks. Oh, and also LED Storm: Rally 2011 is pretty good! It’s got flaws, especially with the fuel system and the refills that often float off the side of the course where you can see them but can’t reach them, and the sometimes hard-to-predict hitboxes. On the whole, though, a fun time was had by all.


The game ends in the same way as the Mad Gear version: with a heartfelt message from Mac about his treasured memories of falling off elevated highways and running out of fuel in the middle of the desert. Capcom changed a lot of the graphics and even the font for the Mad Gear version, but not the spelling – Mac is still “vary giad” to have been with the player. I wish I could say the feeling was mutual, Mac.

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