This is a computer game about using a gun to shoot things. Alien things. In a futuristic city. I'm not really narrowing this down much, am I? It's Novotrade's 1989 Commodore 64 crosshair shooter Horror City!
I don't know what it says about me, but the first thing I thought upon seeing this mutated beast was "its head looks like the upside-down crotch-joints of an old action figure." Already Horror City has suffered a punishing blow to its credibility. There's only so horrific you can be if your grim visage reminds me of He-Man's pelvis.
I'm just going to dive right into this one. It's a crosshair shooter, I think I should be able to handle the intricacies of the gameplay.
Right then, here we are in Horror City, ready to put an end to whatever evil lurks on its streets and subway concourses. Judging by the portrait on the right, I'm playing as a woman, so good on Novotrade for addressing the gender imbalance often found in alien-slaying games such as these. I mean, Samus is a great role model for any young girl wanting to become an intergalactic bounty hunter, but she can't do it all herself.
Your character is called Sinclair, and you'll be controlling her for the duration. Well, controlling her hand, at least. Move the joystick to move the crosshair, the fire button lives up to its name, all is as it should be.
Ignoring the people flying around on hoverboards under the assumption that they're civilians and not actively evil, I instead tried to shoot the bloke at the bottom, the one with the blue colouration and giant googly eyes of the Cookie Monster. I didn't try to kill him just because he looked like the Cookie Monster, you understand. I've got nothing against the Cookie Monster. I just had to make a quick threat assessment and that guy seemed more dangerous than the hoverboarder, that's all.
In the end it didn't matter, because despite getting my shots (as far as I could tell) dead on target, the villain completely ignored me and sauntered off the side of the screen. On the plus side, this did help me realise that you can scroll the screen horizontally by placing your crosshair right at the edge of the screen.
I spotted some more suspicious individuals. You can see one on either side of Sinclair's gun. On the right is a man who has suffered a serious injury at a barbecue, an accident which befell him when he poked the ketchup with his barbecue fork until it exploded all over him. On the left, and forgive my crudeness, is a dustbin with a large blue erection. Here, take a closer look.
I tried shooting both of these unsavoury characters. They seemed like they had to be guilty of something, especially that dustbin. Public indecency, at the very least. Even with the crosshairs right over them and the fire button pummelled to within an inch of its life, nothing happened. The bad guys just walked away.
I shot this shark-man right in the heart. Right in the heart. Did shark-man give a good god damn? No, he did not. I chased him for a while, convinced that a man with the head of a shark could not possibly be something I'm not supposed to be shooting at. After a while, my eager pursuit finally annoyed the shark enough for him to turn around, look at me and make a funny noise.
The noise made the screen flicker, which I suppose represents Sinclair taking damage. Taking damage because a bulletproof shark shouted at her. What is going on? Is the true horror of Horror City a kind of psychological impotence, a traumatic state of not-knowing designed confuse and humiliate the player? I certainly feel a bit humiliated, what with not being able to figure out how this crosshair shooter works. I'm going to turn in my videogame-playing badge and (apparently ineffective) gun.
A few shouts later and Sinclair was dead, having made no impact whatsoever on the wellbeing of Horror City. Well, that's not strictly true. She did kill a civilian. Good work, Sinclair.
I admit defeat. I'm not a proud man and so in order to show you, the readers, a bit more of Horror City, I'm willing to take the "Review" option on the title screen in an attempt to figure out what's going on.
Before I do that, though, take another moment to examine the world of Horror City. If you're a reader of comic books, especially British comic books about granite-faced lawmen who act as judge, jury and executioner, it might seem somewhat familiar. "Ronald Reagan Block"? "Sump Sucks" graffiti? The fact that Sinclair looks as though she's dressed as Judge Anderson? This is all because Horror City is, in fact, a Judge Dredd game with the serial numbers hastily filed off.
Here's a panel from an issue of Computer and Video Games magazine, showing that Piranha (who made the Trap Door games) were working on a game set in the Judge Dredd universe. It was going to be called Judge Death, and it would have starred Psi-Judge Anderson as she battled against Judge Death and his fellow Dark Judges. That's why Sinclair's dressed as Judge Anderson - it's because she is Judge Anderson.
Judge Death was never released, but you can see from the screenshots that it's very obviously the same game as Horror City. At some point Novotrade took the work that had been done on Judge Death, scraped away the top layer of 2000AD while still leaving the background details that clearly mark Horror City out as Mega-City One and released it under a new name. They probably shouldn't have bothered.
These are the Dark Judges, who were set to be your opponents in Judge Death before it was reworked - Judge Fire, Judge Fear, Judge Mortis and Judge Death. Cheerful fellows all, but without the official license they had to be replaced when the game became Horror City. But who to replace them with? Don't worry, I'm sure the creative minds at Novotrade came up with four equally striking and not at all daft-looking alternatives.
Sinclair will be doing battle with Judge Toygroin, Judge Dustbin, Judge, um, Fire and Judge Depressed Shark (he's not jawesome at all). At least I know what they're supposed to be now, and I suppose I can see that the Judge on the left is part-man, part-fly.
Review Mode also give me a hint on what I've been doing wrong. Apparently I have to "aim precisely at the teleport globes on their belts" in order to succeed. I didn't have a goddamn clue what this meant, so I went back to investigate and after much squinting I think I've figured it out. Here, I made the "teleporter globe" flash in this GIF so you can see it.
I think that's it. As far as I can figure out, only shots that hit precisely in this tiny area only a few pixels across will count. What I was doing wrong was, yeah, get this, trying to kill the enemies, when instead I should have been attempting to undo their bloody belts with my bloody pistol.
In order to try to get my head around this baffling, obtuse and frankly awful system, I figured I should head to the practise range.
The practise range is useless. The targets are only destroyed when you hit the transporter globes, but all except the most distant targets have much larger hitboxes than during actual gameplay and the because the orbs are in different places on the characters and they don't move in the same ways the training bears almost no resemblance to the gameplay proper. You learn nothing, although I think it might still be more fun than the game itself.
Armed with this new-found knowlege I returned to the streets, only to be immediately confronted with yet another problem. This is Judge Dustbin, and it looks like he's squatting with his mechanical legs splayed open in a most uncouth manner. Never mind that, though. Take a good long look at Judge Dustbin, and tell me where, on that sprite, is the teleporter globe. I sure as hell couldn't find it. I managed to hit the three other Judges in their globes (if you'll pardon the expression) three times - after being hit three times they're defeated and disappear - before I managed to to hit Judge Dustbin even once. There's just no feedback, no way of knowing if you're close to scoring a hit, no way to tell what you're even supposed to be aiming at, and the whole thing collapses into a face-slappingly, strangling-yourself-with-your-own-nasal-hair-to-escape mess of frustration and pointlessness.
After around thirty minutes of chasing Judge Dustbin around the screen, I somehow managed to score the three lucky hits that let me move on to stage two.
For my efforts, I was rewarded with the chance to do it all again, this time in an underground car park. The background aside - a lovely green-and-black piece of urban congestion that puts me in mind of the original XBox - the game is exactly the same, except the Judges sometimes walk up stairs now. They're still impossible to hit, especially Judge Dustbin, who once again survived long after I'd dealt with his compatriots, my anger rising as I imagined what the robotic clanging of his mocking laughter would sound like as shot after shot did nothing to harm him. I came to the conclusion it'd sound like a metal dustbin being rapidly hit with an egg whisk.
As I vainly unloaded round after round in an attempt to get something to happen, I managed to run out of bullets. On the right, you can see a variety of different ammunition icons. When the red bar underneath an icon fills, you can't use that gun any more. That's not a problem, because you can just press the space bar to switch to another type of ammo. Do the different types of ammo have different powers and properties? No, of course they don't. They have different sound effects. Exciting, I know.
I know I've been complaining about Judge Dustbin be impossible to hit, but the other Judges are almost as bad - those transporter globes are only a few pixels across, after all. Scoring hits is made all the more difficult by the Judges' tendency to act like coquettish schoolgirls, and as you slowly drag yourself across the screen to find them they will quite often simply teleport to a different part of the stage the moment you lay eyes on them, lest you sully their virginal innocence or something. The display at the bottom left of the screen is a radar of sorts, the dots representing the Judges, and when you're not firing wildly without scoring any hits you'll be laboriously hauling Sinclair around the stage trying to catch the dots, like Pac-Man strung out on ketamine.
I stuck with Horror City for just long enough to reach stage three, where enormous lampposts dominate the scenery and everything is just as bad as it was before. I'm not sure who to blame - either Piranha, Novotrade or most likely both - but they've managed to take the crosshair-shooter genre, a genre simple enough that you'd think it impossible to cock up so thoroughly, and turn it into a molasses-slow and needlessly frustrating exercise in unattainable precision.
For starters you're using a joystick - hardly the most precise of tools and not really up to the job of consistently lining up your crosshair with an area smaller than that of the original tissue left on Joan Rivers' face. The enemies simply potter about and don't really do anything, which is really for the best because if they got their act together they could take Sinclair out in two seconds flat. The whole thing is slow and inaccurate, and to cap it all off the only semi-successful purging of any Judge Dredd-related elements means it feels like you're playing the gaming equivalent of one of those bootleg Transformers toys you see in Poundland with names like "Trans-Change RoboCars."
I didn't make it past stage three. I know, I'm sorry, you know I like to show you the whole game but after forty minutes spent chasing Judge Dustbin around I couldn't take it any more. Looking around the internet seems to confirm that no-one else could take it either, and while there apparently at least four stages including a trip to the Cursed Earth you'll be hard-pressed to find any photographic or video evidence of this. If you're desperate to see the rest, you'll have to make it on your own. Good luck and god speed.
Are there any positives I can take from Horror City? Well, Sinclair's hand is quite nicely animated. The static effect when you get hit is kinda neat. Judge Depressed Shark's portrait is at once amusing and faintly melancholic, like a clown in an iron lung. Can you tell I'm stretching?
With a full Judge Dredd license behind it, smoother controls and the removal of the utterly idiotic "teleporter globes" nonsense, Horror City could have been an interesting prospect. Instead you're left with a game that's only interesting because of what it isn't. If you're looking for a C64 game about shooting things that won't make you want to saw off your own fingers in frustration, I recommend Forbidden Forest - at least that'll just give you nightmares.