24/05/2017

COCOTO KART RACER (GAMECUBE)


Having looked at the site’s recent stats, it seems that if I want to drive traffic to VGJunk I should write about more games that A) people have actually heard of or B) star raunchy Italian pop stars. With that in mind, here’s an article about an obscure racing game that’s about as raunchy as a Susan Boyle concert at the Vatican. It’s Neko Entertainment’s 2005 Gamecube version of Cocoto Kart Racer!


As the title screen appears and the game blasts out some jolly, bouncy horn riffs, it’s impossible not to be reminded of Mario Kart: Double Dash, which also begins with a static title screen and jolly, bouncy horn riffs. Of course this is going to remind you of Mario Kart, it’s a kart racing game. There aren’t many kart racing games that won’t remind you of Mario Kart, such is the indelible stamp Nintendo left on the racing genre with the Mario Kart series. In the case of Cocoto Kart Racer, however, the similarities might be even more pronounced than usual.


After picking your game mode from the usual list of suspects - championship, single race and multiplayer – it’s time to select your character. Characters are pretty damn important in a kart racing game, and the decision to put their famous faces in go-karts rather than enclosed vehicles like cars when they created the Mario Kart series was a true stroke of genius on Nintendo’s part. That’s why so many other franchises with casts of recognisable stars – Sonic the Hedgehog, Crash Bandicoot, Nicktoons and so on – have seen kart racing spin-offs, because you can have a racing game while still showing off your bankable stars.


Cocoto Kart Racer does not have any bankable stars, of course. They were all created by the game’s developers in a charmingly doomed attempt to forge some kind of Cocoto universe, and they appeared in a few other games besides this one: a platformer, a lightgun shooter and even a fishing game. Sadly for them, Neko Entertainment’s vision of a vast, genre-spanning Cocoto franchise never really got off the ground, but are any of these characters worth remembering? Probably not. They’re a strange, rag-tag mix of animals, imps and gremlins, all of them designed with a bug-eyed, mildly grotesque art style that absolutely screams “European CGI kid’s TV show.” Seriously, the first time I saw these character I was convinced they’d started out as a low-rent CGI kids show, the kind of thing you’d see on Kix sandwiched between Lego: NEXO Knights and the Angry Birds cartoon. Maybe that was Neko Entertainment’s plan for them all along, but alas, it never came to be and so we’re stuck with this game.
Of the characters available at the beginning of the game my favourite was probably Scritch, who appears to be some kind of skinless zombie beaver that’s been squeezed so hard its eyeballs are bulging out. There’s also a mole, a “brainy” gremlin thing, a gecko and green imp called “Baggy.” I really don’t want to know how Baggy got that nickname.


As his name’s in the game’s title, I figured I should start out by playing as Cocoto himself. He’s definitely the Mario of the game, in that he’s an average all-rounder, although you can select different cars so if you really love the thought of playing as Cocoto but want a faster car with less grip then you can have that too. Cocoto is also a devil, presumably spawned in the sulphurous pits of Hell and dedicated to the spiritual corruption of mankind.


Here he is on the loading screen, wistfully dreaming about human suffering. Let’s hope his eponymous kart racing game isn’t his attempt to darken the souls of all those who play it. Also, Cocoto’s weird hand-feet are creeping me out. He’s evolved opposable toes so he can hold two extra pitchforks when he’s on sinner-poking duty.


Okay, here we are with some actual racing, on the enigmatically-named “Glaboon Track.” I have no clue what the heck a glaboon is – perhaps some crystalline outer region of Cocoto’s demonic homeland? Whatever it is, that’s where we’re racing, and a very familiar sort of racing it is too. The kart racing sort, naturally, with the obvious accelerating and braking to be done, as well as buttons for making your kart hop into the air and for powersliding around corners. There’s no fancy “blue sparks” style tricks to be done with the powersliding, not as far as I could figure out, but it does help you get around corners.


Then there are the weapons. As usual in this kind of game, you collect power ups by driving into icons that litter the track, and they’re very much the kind of special attacks you’d expect. Speed boosters are common, as are projectiles that either travel in a straight line or home in on your nearest competitor. In this instance, Cocoto has surrounded himself with the warm, protective embrace of spinning lava balls. And yes, because comparing Cocoto Kart Racer to Mario Kart is absolutely unavoidable. they’re all the sort of thing you’ll be familiar with if you’ve ever played a Mario Kart game. A little too familiar in the case of the lightning power-up, which electrocutes all the other racers just as it does in a Mario Kart game.


Yes, there are a lot of power-ups in this game. A few too many, even, with special attacks that are either identical to other special attacks or have differences so subtle I couldn’t figure them out after several hours of play. For example, one of the “fire straight ahead” projectiles is a demon-appropriate red trident, but you can also pick up orbs that do the same thing. Or there’s the “trap” items that you drop behind your kart, one of which freezes your opponents in a block of ice to slow them down and another that coats your opponent in a gooey blob to, erm, slow them down. Very few of them are visually interesting enough to warrant inclusion and the sheer number of them means it can be difficult to remember, in the heat of a race, which item has what effect. I came for a race, not a test of my memorisation skills. At least those icy crystal pillars look nice.


After a dodgy first lap spent trying to get to grips with the controls and exactly how the drifting works, I managed to haul myself back up to third place by the end of the race. That sounds more impressive than it is, because there are only six racers on the track. Still, after this first race I feel like I’ve got a handle on the physics of the game, helped by the fact that it feels very similar to, you guessed it, a Mario Kart game. I’m only playing through the first championship (the “Silver Pot”) on normal difficulty, so I’m confident I can make my way to the top of the leaderboards.


Next up is the Cerber Track, a rocky, volcanic course that spices things up by adding a lot of jumps into the track. You can see a ramp in the background there, it’s the glowing yellow thing. There’s not much else to say about the ramps. They’re just ramps. However, sometimes they have rings floating above them, and if you jump through the rings you get an extra speed boost – but often they’re a little too high for the ramp itself to reach. This is where your ability to make your kart jump by pressing L comes into play, because you can use it for the little extra height needed to hit the rings. In fact, I think this is the only use of the jump, because I tried hopping over obstacles and the other player’s traps and it didn’t work. You can easily get through the game without ever pressing the jump button, which probably explain why I completely forgot it existed until I was in my third championship.


Oh hey, looks like we’ve solved the mystery of why this is called the Cerber Track. There’s an enormous, three-headed, fire-breathing devil dog in the middle of the stage, which is pretty cool. You drive towards him down a long straight while Cerberus launches massive fireballs at you, which is a fun bit of gameplay and definitely the stand-out section of this track, even if it does feel very familiar. I’m sure some other kart racing game had you driving directly toward a big fiery projectile launcher while swerving around its attacks, but I can’t quite recall which game that was.


This is the Venusia Track, a jungle-themed raceway that momentarily stopped me comparing Cocoto Kart Racer to Mario Kart by making me think of Crash Team Racing instead. That’s kind of weird, actually, I’ve probably played about forty minutes of Crash Team Racing in total and that was a long time ago, so I’m surprised I remember it at all. I think maybe it’s that I’m remembering the Crash Bandicoot games as a whole, because the Venusia Track shares a very similar aesthetic of tropical plants and vaguely “native” stonework. I’m sure the Crash Bandicoot games were much more visually varied than that but again, I didn’t play much of Crash Bandicoot either. I never really took to Crash, I’ll be honest, and neither did anyone else I knew growing up, so it’s always a surprise to me when there’s some Crash Bandicoot news and lots of people get very excited. Maybe I’ll go back and play Crash Bandicoot again one day to see whether I’m missing out. Let me know in the comments if this is a spectacularly bad idea and the original Crash Bandicoot has aged about as well as a the comedy stylings of Jim Davidson.


Oh right, yeah. This game. Got distracted by Crash Bandicoot for a second there, folks. Anyway, Venusia is a decent track with a little variety to it, with sections such as this large ice field where you can take the less-slippery but more time-consuming outer path or drive straight through the middle to save time at the risk of skidding into the ice-skating turtles that clutter the centre of the area. I like the cobwebs that dangle from the branches overhanging the track, too: if you drive through them they stick to your kart and slow you down for a moment, and it feels like a fun, organic way to introduce a different kind of obstacle into the action – one that doesn’t just make you spin out, but has a slightly different effect on your chances of winning the race. Plus, if you’re lucky you can nudge your opponents into them, which is helpful because the other racers seem a lot worse at avoiding spiderwebs than they are at swerving around all your carefully-laid trap items.


Overall I’d say that Venusia is probably my favourite track in the set of five that make up the first championship. It’s fast-paced, it’s got a few interesting hazards and the visuals changing from jungle ruins to ice areas and back again is fun. That said, this might be a case of damning with faint praise, because Venusia Track isn’t that interesting and on the whole the tracks in Cocoto Kart Racer fall slightly on the dull side. They’re never bad, and they mostly have a decent sense of flow to them, but they’re rather lacking in the shortcuts, optional routes or exciting gauntlets you’ve come to expect from a kart racing game. The big Cerberus is the exception rather than the rule, let's put it that way.


There are also a couple of places in each track where it’s a little too easy to get stuck amongst the scenery, as you can see. It’s not game-breaking or anything, but it can be a little annoying when Cocoto suddenly decides to dedicate his life to the extremely close study of these archaeologically important ruins.


There’s more jungle action in the Bo-Bong Track, a merry jaunt through the twisting treetops, a race spent powersliding around the mighty trunks and half-expecting to run over an Ewok. It’s a real step up in difficulty after the other tracks, with lots of hairpin bends that require a certain amount of planning to get around without embarrassingly wedging your kart bonnet-first into the apex as the other racers easily glide past you.


Oh, here’s something else I suppose I should mention: you can collect golden apples as you race, up to a total of nine. You just drive over them, it’s not like you have to trick Atlas into fetching them for you or anything. Look, I spent a lot of time reading about Greek mythology as a kid and I’m not going to miss a chance to make a “golden apples” reference, okay? Anyway, the effect is subtle but I think that for each apple you have (up to total of nine,) your top speed is slightly increased. This would mean the apples work in the same way as the coins from Mario Kart, and as the odds of a gameplay mechanic in this game not being lifted from Mario Kart are slim to none then I’d say that is definitely how the apples work.


The final course of the championship takes place on the Zaron Track, a sort of celestial highway amongst the clouds and Cocoto Kart Racer’s equivalent of Rainbow Road. If you look at the track map, you can see Cocoto is about to enter a series of extremely sharp hairpin turns, which is a shame because it’s probably the worst bit of all the tracks. I understand what they were going for, but the bends are so awkward to negotiate they they slow the action down to a crawl – except the CPU players have no trouble blasting through this section at maximum speed, especially if you’re in the lead and they’re rubberbanding their way back towards you. It might just be the way I play racing games, but it did feel like the course layouts in this game meant that karts with lower top speed but better control and grip had a distinct advantage over faster, more slippery vehicles.


I do really like these angels, though. They fly around trying to spread the light and grace of the Lord by dropping anvils on people’s heads. I say people, all these racers are grotty little weirdos, and frankly if there’s a demonic imp driving a hotrod through Heaven then verily it is the angels’ sacred duty to crush the interloper using the methods by which the Roadrunner would smiteth Wile E. Coyote.


Here’s a hateful little thing about this game: every time you overtake (or are overtaken by) another character, they say “hello!” in an extremely irritating, high-pitched, digitally-manipulated voice. It is extremely grating, especially in situations like the one above where all the racers are crammed together and it ends up sounding like singles night at a packed Minion bar.


Well, I did it: despite winning only two of the five races, I topped the championship leaderboard and took home the trophy. That’s really all you get by way of celebration, the image of a spinning trophy that I don’t really feel like I earned.  It’s a little disappointing, sure, but I suppose I wasn’t expecting a big production or anything. Winning the championship also meant I unlocked both the next championship and a brand new racer.


Well, I guess that answers the “what’s a Glaboon?” question.


So, after spending a decent amount of time with Cocoto Kart Racer, I have come to some conclusions about it, the main one being that it’s actually pretty good. Well, the core mechanics, the racing itself, that’s good. It controls well, there’s a decent sense of speed, your CPU competitors have some rubberbanding but it rarely feels totally unfair. It’s a solid, uncomplicated kart racer that provides racing action that is more enjoyable to play than you might expect at first glance. Is it is much fun as a Mario Kart game? No, of course not, but then it wouldn’t be. What kind of budget do you think Cocoto Kart Racer was made with? Ten percent of a Mario Kart game’s? Five percent? Neko Entertainment must be commended for creating a game that, mechanically at least, doesn’t feel cheap. This is particularly astonishing given that Neko Entertainment’s most famous game is probably Crazy Frog Racer.


However, Cocoto Kart Racer has one huge problem: blandness. A lot of it just isn’t very interesting. Most of the playable characters are dull and lack any personality whatsoever, the track layouts are competent but rarely rise above that very low benchmark, the graphics are merely passable and the soundtrack is so forgettable it may as well not exist. Then there’s the big kicker: as far as I can tell there are only five types of track. When you get to the second championship, rather than a whole new set of courses to race on you get another Glaboon Track, another Cerber Track and so on, except they’ve been expanded or modified in a manner similar to Ridge Racer. I’d say on average half of each track is a new layout while the other half is the exact same circuit you raced on in the previous cup, and this lack of variety severely curtails the impetus to keep playing in the hope you’ll see something new. Maybe this changes in the final cup but I highly doubt it, and it looks like I’ll never find out: despite winning the second championship twice, the final set of tracks didn’t unlock.


Oh well, I got a lady squid out of it. In a game packed with uninteresting characters, a posh squid dripping with jewellery is definitely the cream of the crop.


Perhaps you could extract more enjoyment from Cocoto Kart Racer via the multiplayer modes. I wouldn’t know, not having any friends nearby while I toil away at these articles during the wee hours, but it does include multiplayer races and the ever-popular battle mode, perfect for starting vicious arguments over the clearly biased nature of the “random” power-ups, why do you keep getting the homing piranhas, this is bullshit!


If you do want to give Cocoto Kart Racer a go, you’ve got plenty of options when it comes to platforms. It was released on the Wii, the PS2 and on Windows, as well as there being reworked versions on the handhelds of the time. Pictured above is the Game Boy Advance version. I had a quick go at it, but it’s not nearly as good as the console versions. To sneak in one last Mario Kart comparison, the console versions of Cocoto Kart Racer are much closer in quality to a console Mario Kart game than the Game Boy Advance version is to Mario Kart Super Circuit. On the plus side, I found a code for the GBA version that let me play as a large ape called Bo-Bong. When compared to the other characters, I think he might be bigger, faster and stronger too.


Like sticking a turbocharged engine inside a Skoda Octavia, Cocoto Kart Racer is respectable under the hood but boring to the point of embarrassment on the outside. Okay, that might be a bit harsh: I’m just disappointed it didn’t go all the way with the horror theme promised by the main character being a devil. You can definitely have fun playing this game, which is more than can be said for many games I write about, but it’s the empty, unsatisfying fun of playing I Spy on a long coach trip. A noble effort doomed to failure by a lack of budget and (possibly) ambition, hampered by the existence of other, more exciting competitors, then. Maybe one day I’ll try the other games in the Cocoto series, although playing the fishing one as the squid lady might raise some uncomfortable ethical questions.

18/05/2017

DEATH STAR INTERCEPTOR (ZX SPECTRUM)

Two articles in a row about ancient ZX Spectrum games? Oh, but I do spoil you people. Today’s game also raises an interesting question: namely, when is a licensed game not a licensed game? Well, let’s find out with Software Conversion’s 1985 legal-minefield-em-up Death Star Interceptor!


“System 3 Software Presents: TEXT, the All-Typographical Adventure!”
Clearly the most immediately striking part of this image is, you know, the Death Star. The Death Star from Star Wars, except this isn’t a Star Wars game, except it is a Star Wars game. It’s kind of confusing, like seeing the Death Star hovering ominously close to the Earth. Not a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, then? No, the Death Star is close enough to our humble sphere that the human race will be temporarily distracted from listening to Duran Duran and perming their hair, or whatever went on in 1985. But that is unequivocally the Death Star from Star Wars, and the premise of this game is that you’ll be flying a spaceship with X-shaped wings on a mission to destroy it, which makes the part of this opening text that claims the game is based on an “original idea” seem rather cheeky.
What you may notice, however, is that there’s a credit for John Williams and Warner Bros. for use of the Star Wars theme music - and only the music. More on that in a while.


Just to re-confirm how much of a Star Wars game this is, here’s the default high score table. I have to take issue with this: I know he’s an astromech droid, but there’s no way R2D2 is a better pilot on Chewbacca. Also, good work using the wrong “role” there, chaps.


So the high score table is a clear indication of Death Star Interceptor’s Star Wars roots, but the game’s “Mission Briefing” - as well as the blurb on the back of the game’s cassette inlay – assiduously avoid mentioning any trademark Star Wars terms and phrases apart from "Death Star". The X-Wing is now “StarFighter One,” the Rebel Alliance are the Earth Defence Council and the plot provided tells the story of an evil empire that requires humanoid slaves to work in their mines, extracting a precious substance called “Aix” that prolongs life-spans but is also extremely dangerous and causes mutations, so Death Star Interceptor has managed to rip off a little bit of Dune as well.


Here is the cover art itself. That’s no moon, it’s a space station! And also the moon. Again, it does feel very strange to see Star Wars playing out near planet Earth. Earth must be a very confusing place for Star Wars characters, what with it not being an entire planet made of deserts or jungles or ice. As you can see there’s no actual mention of Star Wars, but that is one hundred percent an X-Wing down there. I might be labouring the point, but the amount of effort that’s gone into keeping this game balanced on a knife-edge of Star Wars / Not Star Wars is genuinely fascinating to me.



The copyright notices on the title screen were true, and John William’s Star Wars theme does indeed appear in the game, playing if you leave the game on the title screen for too long as some kind of aural punishment for not starting the action quickly enough. Despite sounding as though it’s being played on an ambulance siren, I suppose as far as ZX Spectrum music goes it’s not too bad – and it’s recognisable as the Star Wars theme, at least – but then you get to that final drawn-out note and your ears shrivel up and die like a salted slug. While I was editing this music ready for upload, I forgot I’d left the game running in the background until theme started playing while I was listening to the captured audio. Trust me, hearing two instances of this music playing at once and not in sync is a sonic experience you do not forget in a hurry (more’s the pity).


Okay, I’ve put it off long enough, I should probably play the actual game. Death Star Interceptor is divided into three sections, of which this is the first – the take-off. You’re controlling the X-Wing – sorry, StarFighter One – at the bottom of the screen, and your goal is to fly through the very centre of the rings at the top of the screen. Sounds easy enough, right? You pull back on the joystick, the game emits a sound effect akin to Mechagodzilla’s cries of pain after stubbing his toe, and your ship takes to the skies!


Except once it’s moving, the X-Wing randomly wobbles from side to side, often veering all the way over to the far side of the screen. So, you have to use left and right to nudge this buckin’ space bronco back on course, something that’s easier said than done when the target you’re aiming for – the dot in the very centre of the “space gate” - is so goddamn small. If you miss your target, your X-Wing somehow manages to crash into thin air, and you lose a shield. It’s the 8-bit computer game equivalent of trying to guide an extremely drunk friend to their bed, except you don’t even get the reward of photos for future blackmail purposes, just more uninspiring gameplay.


If and when you manage to take off successfully, Death Star Interceptor moves into stage two. You’re flying towards the distant Death Star, while being attacked by the Empire’s space fleet. TIE Fighters fly in from the top of the screen, and you can shoot them. You don’t have to shoot them but you can. On the easiest difficulty setting the enemy ships don’t even fire back, they just try to ram into you. It’s Space Invaders, essentially – although thinking about it, the TIE Fighters’ swooping movement patterns make it feel a bit more like Galaga.


As simple as it sounds, there are a few problems that make DSI’s space combat sections a real chore. The first is that you can only fire one projectile at a time, and your lasers only disappear if you hit something or they fly off the top of the screen. As you can see, you’re often facing multiple TIE Fighters at once, so a missed shot means you’re completely defenceless while you wait for your unfathomably slow laser beams to make it off the screen. The simple inclusion of a rapid-fire weapon into DSI’s gameplay would drastically improve the entire game without making it too easy – there are still a lot of enemy ships, and you can only fire forwards or at a forty-five degree diagonal if you shoot while moving left or right. There is no rapid-fire option, though, and so the combat feels dull and frustrating.


The other thing is the controls. I’ll say this for them, they’re sharp and responsive and you know where your ship is going to be once you’ve used them. On a technical level they’re fine. However, they’re laid out with “aeroplane” controls – that is, you pull back on the joystick to “climb” and push forwards to “dive.” This is all well and good in a more three-dimensional flight game, an Afterburner or a Star Fox, but DSI takes place on a flat black plane with no illusion of depth so it doesn’t feel like your altitude is changing at all. You’re just moving forward and backwards, except you have to push up to move backwards and down to go forwards. You might not have a problem with this, but my brain could just not figure this out at all, so I crashed a lot because I foolishly pressed up to move my ship up the screen.
Oh, and then there’s the noise the TIE Fighters make. You know how in the Star Wars movies, TIE Fighters emit a roaring scream as they fly by? Now imagine that sound as produced by a ZX Spectrum. Yeah. Now stop imagining it, I don’t want you getting upset.


However, all these problems (well, apart from the sound effects) can be negated by this one simple tactic: if you park your X-Wing in the bottom-right corner, nothing can hit you and you can fly to the Death Star unimpeded. Sure, you won’t get a high score, but what’s more important – your personal glory or saving the Earth, you arrogant fool?


Having survived the journey to the Death Star, we’re now into DSI’s final section: the trench run itself. I’m still amazed the game’s creators got away with this, with my only explanation being that Lucasfilm’s lawyers had bigger fish to fry than small British games developers. And they even licensed the music! That must have been an interesting phone call.
“Let me get this straight, you want the license to use the Star Wars theme music, but you’re not making a Star Wars game?”
“That’s correct.”
“So what is your game about?”
“Well, it’s about a war amongst the stars. A plucky pilot must destroy a huge planet-smashing space station by flying down its equatorial trench and firing a missile into its exhaust port.”
“I see. And what’s the name of this space station?”
“The Death Star.”
“The Death Star?”
“Yep, the Death Star. It’s based on an original idea we definitely had.”
“Well, in that case, I don’t see any problems. Good luck with your game!”


As for the trench run gameplay itself, it’s pretty similar to the previous section but with more emphasis on avoiding things. This is especially true of these laser beams that stretch across the trench, and you must slalom your way between them to avoid taking damage. “Hold on,” you might think, (as I did,) “if I can control my ship’s altitude then maybe I can fly underneath the laser beams? It didn’t work in space, but it might here because things are a bit more three-dimensional.” So you push forwards to lower your ship’s nose and descend and… nothing happens. During these laser-grid sections, the game completely disables your ability to move your ship up and down, presumably in a vain attempt to maintain the illusion that you can control your altitude during the other sections. It’s even mentioned in the game’s instruction in bare-faced “we locked your controls for this section” kind of way.  How wonderful.


The real danger of the trench section comes from the wall-mounted turrets. They fire horizontally, and very quickly, making them especially difficult to avoid. You can technically destroy them, but they generally come in pairs with one on either wall, so the odds of blowing them both up before they shoot you are slim to none. One saving grace is that DSI is quite generous when it comes to the amount of damage you can take: you start with four lives and for each life your ship has five shields, so you can take a bit of punishment before hitting the Game Over screen. Most Spectrum games would let you take three hits, tops.


We’re coming up to the end now, and the exhaust port is in sight! What do you mean you can’t see it? It’s right there! You know, the four-pixel-wide oval in the middle of the floor!


Look, here it is a bit closer up. Of course, if the exhaust port is this close to you and you haven’t shot it already, it’s too late. If you do manage to fly past your target without hitting it, the level actually loops around and you’ll get another chance eventually. I missed the bloody thing multiple times, so I have to image the Not Luke Skywalker flying this ship, repeatedly hurtling around the Death Star’s equator ike my nan trying to drive off a roundabout while ruing the fact he didn’t pay attention when that old bloke with the beard was banging on about some kind of force.


I eventually managed to stay on target long enough to deposit the payload, and with that Death Star Interceptor is complete. On the easiest difficulty and after basically skipping the entire second section by hiding in the corner, anyway. You see all these single pixels? Most of them are stars, but one of them is slowly moving from left to right, so I assume that’s meant to be your ship escaping from the imminent explosion.


At least I hope it was, otherwise our hero has been blasted into atomic dust. God speed, bootleg Star Wars man. May your merchandising potential generate billions of dollars of revenue per year forever more.


Aside from its wonderfully entertaining attempts to pretend it isn’t a Star Wars game, is there anything about Death Star Interceptor that makes it worth bothering with? Yes and no. It’s not as bad as perhaps I’ve made it sound, with solid collision detection, good controls (aside from the up / down layout) and a perfectly acceptable core set of gameplay mechanics – I mean it’s hard to mess up the standard Space Invaders-style gameplay, although DSI gives it a good try. It’s one of those games that’s frustrating to play because it’s a whisker away from being a much more enjoyable experience – the addition of a faster-firing, less pathetic main weapon and the removal of the TIE Fighter sound effects would go a long, long way towards making his game something you could spend a fun half-hour with. As it stands, though, DSI is the videogame equivalent of knockoff “Space Wars” action figure from Poundland: that badly-painted Dark Father toy with bendy lightsaber might be amusingly dumb for five minutes, but it’s still a cheap piece of tat.

16/05/2017

SABRINA (ZX SPECTRUM)

The topic of today’s article? Smut, plain and simple. The ever-popular combination of sex and violence comes to the ZX Spectrum with Spanish developer Genesis Soft’s 1989 breast-em-up (and that ain’t a Freudian slip) Sabrina!

Here’s Sabrina’s loading screen, and in the interests of keeping the site relatively family-friendly VGJunk’s unofficial site mascot Satan Goat is pulling double duty as a censor bar. I reckon the breasts on the poster in the background are fine because the nipples are just one pixel, but that’s not the case with Sabrina herself. Let’s just say she should probably go up a bra size or two, because she’s spilling out of the one she’s wearing now.
Aside from that, I rather like this title screen. Sure, Sabrina might have the shoulders of a rugby forward, but apart from that it’s pretty good. A nicely detailed face and a background showing a charming Mediterranean town, all captured in black and white so you’re not subjected to the Spectrum’s occasionally retina-searing range of colours.
As well as this… engaging image, Sabrina’s title screen also features some digitised speech! That’s always impressive to hear coming out of a ZX Spectrum. Okay, maybe not always impressive, because I think Sabrina has the worst digitised speech I’ve ever heard in a computer game. I had to listen to it a dozen times before I realised it was saying “Genesis Soft presenta Sabrina,” because it sounds like Stephen Hawking being slowly fed into a rusty woodchipper.


It turns out that the eponymous Sabrina is not a character created for the game and she is, in fact, based on a real person. Specifically, you’re playing as Italian beauty pageant winner turned pop star Sabrina Salerno. As she was an Italian pop star in the mid to late eighties, I’m sure you can imagine the kind of poppy-funky-dancey music she was releasing, and it seems she was mostly famous for the raunchiness of her music videos. I watched a few of them as research for this article, and that was definitely one of the more, ahem, invigorating research sessions I’ve ever done for the site. You probably couldn’t get away with watching them (or doing a Google image search for Sabrina) at work, let’s put it that way. As you can see from the game’s cover, Sabrina also came with a cassette of Sabrina’s music, including her hits “Boys” (sample lyrics: “boy, boys, boys, get ready for my love”) and “Hot Girl,” as well as a cover of Prince’s “Kiss.” I listened to that version of Kiss, too. I wouldn’t recommend it.


Obviously, if you’re making a game about an Italo-disco singer known for her sex appeal, there’s only one possible genre for it: the side-scrolling beat-em-up. Hang on, really? Not some kind of music management sim or even a “make a music video” type thing? I can understand it not being a rhythm-action game, because the Spectrum’s ability to output bearable music is outdone by a squeaky dog toy tied to a pneumatic drill, but a beat-em-up? Oh well, time to start beating people up, I guess.
That’s Sabrina on the left of the screen, (and also twice at the bottom of the screen, which is perpetually emblazoned with the enormous status bar common to Spectrum games,) and she’s ready to move from left to right across a series of single-screen areas. There’s no scrolling backgrounds in this one, folks, just a series of individual screens. When I say “go from left to right,” I mean it, because that’s really all Sabrina can do. She can’t even jump and it does feel weird to be playing a brawler with no jumping in it at all. Just like in real life, I kept trying to do flying kicks when I very much did not have the capacity to pull off flying kicks.


This being a beat-em-up, naturally there are people for Sabrina to, you know, beat up. For the first half of the game, it’s mostly a repeating cycle of these three enemies. There’s a skinny woman on the right and a less-skinny woman on the left, and they’re presumably out to destroy Sabrina in a fit of outraged moral fervour. Just behind Sabrina is a knife-wielding maniac. You’d think he’d be the most dangerous of the three, but all of the enemies attack in the same manner: they walk into Sabrina and drain a bit of her health, while also causing Sabrina to be frozen in place while bright colours flash punishingly around the edge of the screen and a noise that sounds like a robot with diarrhoea not quite making it to the bathroom in time plays.
So, what moves does Sabrina have at her disposal to deal with these threats? Well, she has three attacks. She can slap at head height, she can kick at shin height – and that does look like it would be quite painful – and she can also do this.


That’s right, she can inflate her boobs and use them to batter people into submission. You’d have to pay certain specialist websites cold hard cash to get video footage of that kind of thing, but with Sabrina on the ZX Spectrum you can experience the effect in all it’s blocky, low-colour glory. It’s a move that’s destined to join Haggar’s spinning lariat and Axel’s Grand Upper in the pantheon of all-time classic beat-em-up attacks, I’m sure.


As you move forward, you’ll quickly realise that there’s a rock-paper-scissors – well, rock-paper-boobs, anyway – relationship between Sabrina’s moves and the enemies that are vulnerable to them. For instance, the knifemen can be knocked aside by a single blow from Sabrina’s ample charms, but the women are unfazed by her breasts and must be either kicked or slapped, depending on the type of woman. It’s an interesting take on the usual beat-em-up gameplay, I suppose, and it gives the action the feel of a memory-matching game rather than a brutal slugfest. I did begin to rue the fact that Sabrina’s boobs didn’t work on everyone, though, because they’ve got the greatest range and the fastest activation of all her attacks.


Then there’s the real danger that Sabrina faces during her adventure: high explosives. Most of the screens beyond the first two or three have a cartoon bomb laying on the floor – in the screenshot above, you can see it just in front of the purple door – and if Sabrina doesn’t get over to them quickly enough, they explode. If they do detonate, it’s an instant game over no matter how many lives you have, so obviously getting rid of the bombs is your top priority. To remove them, you have to punt the bomb off the screen by standing near it and using Sabrina’s kick attack – not part of most bomb disposal manuals, but it works for Sabrina as she has absolutely zero compassion for any innocent bystanders that may be harmed when she hoofs ten pounds of semtex at them.


Getting rid of the bombs isn’t as easy as I’ve made it sound, actually. Part of the problem is the position you have to take to kick the bomb: you’d think you’d want to be next to it, so that when Sabrina kicks the animation clearly shows her foot swinging and making contact with the bomb. That is not the case; you have to be standing right on top of it, maybe even slightly beyond it, in order to successfully kick the bloody thing. The is made more difficult by the frequency with which the bombs are placed directly under open windows, windows from which people will drop flowerpots onto Sabrina’s tousled head. Taking damage freezes you in place for what feels like a thousand agonising years, (actually about two seconds,) during which time the bomb’s countdown is still ticking away. This game isn’t exactly portraying Sabrina in the best light, is it? Not when everyone’s out to murder her for some unexplained reason. Maybe they foresaw that she’d end up recording Blondie's “Call Me” as a duet with Sam Fox in 2010 and were desperate to prevent this grim future from coming to pass.


That’s the general flow of Sabrina, then. You walk onto each new screen, check for bombs and if there is a bomb you rush over it and try to kick it away before it explodes, all while trying to remember which of your attacks are effective against each foe. And trying to remember which key you’d mapped to each attack, in my case. But it is any fun? Sadly, it really isn’t. The hit detection is sloppy enough that enemies you’re sure you should have defeated manage to sneak through, the fact that you’re paralysed by every successful enemy attack quickly becomes frustrating and when a bomb does explode, being kicked back to the title screen doesn’t exactly compel you to reach for the “new game” button. That said, there’s something I find quite charming about Sabrina. Maybe it’s that it took its ridiculous premise and not-very-videogame-appropriate heroine and ran with it, and the boob attack is so dumb it wraps around to being funny. The graphics aren’t bad for a Spectrum game, either, with some nice backgrounds and sprites that are a lot clearer in motion than they seem in these screenshots.


After twenty or so screen of this nonsense, Sabrina comes face-to-face with a lady that I’m going to generously call a boss. Standing here in this desolate alley, the only outcome can be a furious martial arts battle the likes of which Hong Kong cinema can only dream of. Are you ready to see these two mighty warriors locked in mortal combat?


I’m at a loss for words. Nothing I can come up with seems adequate to describe whatever this is. Two shop mannequins trapped in a giant blender? Mechanical soft-shoe dancers caught in a violent electrical storm? No, this fight simply is, and our human minds are ill-equipped to comprehend it. That’s what I kept telling myself when I couldn’t figure out what was going on here, anyway. As far as I can see, the only way to beat this woman is to make sure you start with multiple lives, get right up next to her and start wildly flailing on your attack buttons. With a little luck, she’ll be defeated before Sabrina runs out of lives. Any good will I had towards Sabrina by this point was quickly swept away by this awful, incomprehensible boss battle, so it is with a truly heavy heart that I must inform you it’s time to go through the game again.


That’s right, the boss was merely the half-way point. After flipping the tape over, the second half of Sabrina is revealed, and it looks like this. The gameplay is the same, but the graphics and setting have changed. The cartoon bombs are sticks of dynamite now, the levels have more of a “city centre” feel and there are different enemies. For instance, Sabrina is being chased by a crucifix-waving priest. Maybe he saw Sabrina thrashing around during the boss fight and came to the perfectly reasonable conclusion that she requires an exorcism. You can defeat the priest by whacking him with Sabrina’s boobs, and with that in mind I’m going to flip-flop again and say that Sabrina is actually kinda great.


As I say, the graphics might be a bit different, but the gameplay hasn’t changed any. It definitely hasn’t suddenly become interesting or anything, not even with the addition of the roaming priests and the punk-rock ladies you can see at the left of the screen. I do like their sprites, though. Where’s my beat-em-up about punk rock women with mohawks and switchblades clearing up the city streets? Hmm. They say you should be the change you want to see in the world, so I suppose I’d better learn how to make a beat-em-up.


Here’s an indication of just how loosely Sabrina was holding my attention: I wandered onto this screen and the first thing that sprang into my mind was “‘ayuntamiento’ is Spanish for ‘town hall’” followed by several minutes spent pondering the mysteries of the human mind as this piece of vocab from my GCSE Spanish lessons popped into my head fifteen years later.


“An old woman, a priest and Sabrina Salerno walk into a sex shop...” sounds like the start of an extremely filthy joke. It's a shame I can’t pop into the sex shop, I can’t believe Sabrina’s morally-upstanding potential murderers would follow me in there and I could get a bit of a break.


The second half of the game ends the same way as the first, with an identical boss battle against the flailing woman. At least these battles are over quickly. In fact. the entire game is over quickly: once you've had a bit of practise, you can beat the whole thing in less than ten minutes.


That’s it, the game’s over, and we’re presented with the cryptic message “llegaste al plato.” Obviously my GCSE Spanish lessons weren’t as comprehensive as I thought, because I originally through it was trying to tell me something about acquiring a plate. Then I looked it up and realised it’s probably supposed to say “llegaste al plató” (with accent) which means “You arrived at the set” (as in movie set). That makes a lot more sense, and it gives some indication of what Sabrina was actually trying to accomplish in this game. It doesn’t explain why everyone wanted her dead, though. Her musical output by 1989 wasn’t that bad. There’s also a mysterious code number provided, but I couldn’t figure out what it was for. And why the hell should I? What am I, Hercule Poirot? Someone else can put in the legwork to figure that one out, because I’ve definitely had enough of Sabrina by this point.
So that’s Sabrina, a game so European and trashy I’m surprised it wasn’t presented by Antoine de Caunes. Hold on a minute, just let me check… yep, Sabrina did appear on Eurotrash. Of course she did. If she hadn’t, I would’ve had to find someone who owns a hat so I could eat it.

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