29/06/2017

AGENT X (ZX SPECTRUM)

The name’s X. Agent X, and he’s here to do all the things James Bond would, apart from dressing as a clown and making sexual advances towards women with contrived names. That’s right, it’s Mastertronic and Software Creation’s 1986 ZX Spectrum cartoon-espionage-em-up Agent X!


Or Agent X in The Brain Drain Caper, as the title screen would have it. That title doesn’t make much sense, because there’s no “brain drain” going on in this one. It’s about a mad scientist who has kidnapped the US president, not Soviet scientists defecting to the West. Unless the title is intended as a warning that this game is so dumb that playing it will actually make you less intelligent. I really hope that’s not the case.


Early impressions are mixed. I like the artwork on the loading screen, which promises an adventure filled with comic-book action and very eighties supercars, but the title screen has music and it’s fair to say I’m divided on its merits. It was composed by game music legend Tim Follin, and the composition itself is good. It’s a shame, then, that the music is being created by a ZX Spectrum, because that means it sounds like it’s being played by a symphony orchestra of ants on tiny, ant-sized vacuum cleaners. It is a technically remarkable feat of sound engineering, given the limitations of the technology it appears on, but it’s difficult to listen to for long.


You’re thrown straight into the action with the first stage, a high-speed motorway chase in which Agent X – that’s his sports car in the middle – must drive forwards for a while. Until the “Distance” bar on the right is full, in fact. Obviously it’s not that simple, because all the other cars on the road seem to have wandered their way in from a Mad Max game, and they’ll do their darnedest to nudge and bump your car around the road.


This is a problem, because both the edge of the road and certain sections of the road itself, like the chequerboard-patterned area above, will cause your car to explode if you come into contact with them. So, you know, don’t do that. Instead, you should use the fact that your car is just as good at nudging as the others to push your foes into these obstacles. That way, they explode and you get points. Is there much reason to collect points? No, but seeing your attackers blow up because you shunted them into a barrier is a reward in itself. You just have make sure you watch out for the tanks, which cannot be nudged.


If you’re feeling especially bold, you can try jumping over the obstacles. Of course you can, the ability to jump over obstacles is second only to mounted machine guns when it comes to gadgets on a James Bond-esque supercar. However, avoiding the obstacles entirely is by far the safer option, mostly because there’s a distinct delay between pushing the jump button and your car leaving the tarmac. This is really the only wrinkle in this stage, which on the whole is rather good fun. Jumps aside, your car controls smoothly enough that you can nimbly dash through gaps, the collision detection is excellent, the impacts and their effects are consistent and there’s even some effort to differentiate between the types of cars on the road – for instance, the police cars will try to drive in front of you and block you off. It’s a solid slice of arcade driving action, made more enjoyable by the crisp, cartoony graphics.


Forget all that, though: my absolute favourite thing I noticed about this stage (and probably my favourite thing in the whole game) is your lives counter. Rather than having a standard numerical indicator showing how much more punishment Agent X can take, instead there’s a small display on the bottom-right. Every time you lose a life, Agent X literally takes one step closer to the grave. As someone with a fairly macabre sense of humour, this is wonderful and could only be improved if, upon reaching his tombstone, Agent X dug himself a shallow grave and jumped into it, pulling the turf over his head like a blanket.


Once you’ve driven far enough to fill the distance meter, Agent X arrives at the sinister Omega Base. Note that it’s “sinister”, not “secret.” It’s difficult to keep a location secret when there’s a busy highway that leads right to the front door.


Now the action shifts to a complete different genre – it’s a side-scrolling, single-plane brawler! Here we get our first proper look at Agent X himself in action. No, I’m not counting his solemn, dignified march towards his own mortality as “in action.” He’s not quite the James Bond type you might expect from the game’s premise and its box art. He’s more of a hard-boiled gumshoe meets Andy Capp sort, his hat pulled down tight and a cigarette forever bobbing at the corner of his mouth. Hang on, Andy Capp is a pun on “handicap,” isn’t it? I just got that. I looked it up on Wikipedia for verification, and apparently Andy Capp lives in Hartlepool and even has a statue there in his honour. While I’m not sure commemorating a fictional wife-beating alcoholic is the best thing ever, Hartlepool’s other big claim to fame is that they once hanged a monkey after mistaking it for a French spy so they’ve only got so much material to work with, civic pride-wise.


Where was I? Oh yes, Agent X. So, the inside of the Omega base is a dangerous place, packed with killer monocular robots, people with unicycles instead of legs, killer monocular robots wearing capes and runaway mine carts. Did I mention that the Omega Base is inside a mine? Well, it is. That explains why there’s a sign saying “mine” on the loading screen. I has assumed it was just Agent X making sure everyone knows he owns that supercar.
Speaking of signs, just look at Agent X puffing away underneath a No Smoking sign. What a rebel, what a man of determination, what a man who’s going to end up being scraped off the walls after a methane explosion.


This section all plays out just as you’d think it would. Once again you’re trying to travel far enough to fill up the bar on the right, and you can do so by running, jumping and kicking. Well, in theory. In practise, the only thing you should ever do during this stage is the jumping kick, which you can see above. It might not be the most graceful martial arts move I’ve ever seen – Agent X looks like a Playmobil figure that’s been forced into a sitting position – but by god is it useful. Not only does it defeat all your enemies with a single hit, complete with a very charming “oof!” speech bubble that appears when you land the telling blow, but it’s fast and responsive and it helps with leaping over the mine carts because they’re immune to getting kicked.


Much like the first section, this is a very enjoyable area. The action’s simple but well-crafted, once again the controls are smooth and the almost Beano-esque cartoon graphics are a lot of fun. It also helps that Agent X is fairly generous with both the amount of lives it gives you and its respawns – so many home computer games of the time have that “here’s your three lives, use ‘em all and piss off” vibe to them, but that’s not the case here. I was a little bit worried when I realised that Agent X was going to feature a variety of different play mechanics, because I’ve played a lot of “multi-event” games over the years and they’re rarely much good, leaving you wishing that the developers had decided on one genre and stuck with it. A game with one well-executed concept is infinitely preferable to a game with several half-arsed sections bolted together, you know? Agent X is doing okay for itself so far, though. Can it keep up this level of quality?


No, it cannot. The next stage is a crosshair shooter game, and it’s also the game’s lowest ebb… which is not to say it’s terrible or anything. Your crosshair is responsive enough and it still looks quite nice, but there are three main problems with it: it’s not very interesting, it goes on for ages and it’s much, much more difficult than the rest of the game.


The aim (hur hur) of the game is simple: the mad professor’s machine will randomly fire a projectile at you from one of the eight yellow doorways. You have to move your crosshair over to the “missile” and shoot it down before it hits you. That’s pretty much it, folks. Between the very non-missile-launcher-looking doorways, the bright colours and that fact that all the missiles flying at you are platonic solids, it’s a bit like being attacked by a weaponised Play-Doh Fun Factory.


Once you’ve destroyed enough missiles to fill about seventy-five percent of the objective bar, things start getting extremely hectic. Missiles are constantly spewing from the doorways, and it’s nigh-impossible to move the cursor fast enough to hit them all unless, like me, you stumble onto a secret technique. You see, there’s a very specific height at which you can place your crosshair, a vertical level that allows you to hit both the high and low missiles without having to move the crosshair up or down. Figuring this out was the only way I managed to clear this stage, because obviously only having one axis of movement to worry about makes things, well, fifty percent easier. Speaking of making things easier, if you decide to give Agent X a go for yourself, for the love of god make sure you figure out how to set up a joystick on your Spectrum emulator (or actual Spectrum, I guess). If you don’t, you’ll have to use the keyboard controls. You know, the standard Spectrum keyboard controls, where Q and A move your crosshair up and down while O and P move it left and right, with the bottom row a fire. Trying to play a crosshair shooter with these controls is the digital equivalent of rubbing you stomach and patting your head at the same time, and was surely a huge contributing factor as to why I liked this stage the least.


Oh well, it’s over now. Agent X puts a bullet in the mad professor’s skull while quipping “This one’s for you, pal.” Given Agent X’s attire, it’s almost impossible not to read that line in a Humphrey Bogart voice. I’m not sure what Agent X shot the professor with, but it seems to have set his head on fire so I suppose that means it’s the end of the game?


Of course not, I’ve got to blow up the villain’s underground base! You can’t have a game set in a villain’s underground base and not have it explode at the end, although in Agent X’s case things are a touch more complicated than usual. Normally there’s some huge piece of machinery you can overload or even that classic, the self-destruct button, but that’s not the case here. Instead, Agent X takes to the skies in his helicopter. His goal? To fly out of the base, collect a bomb, fly back into the base, deposit the bomb and then escape the base again. Sure, that sounds like a good use of my time.


So now we’re flying a helicopter. It can move up, down and in one horizontal direction. If you press the other direction, the helicopter actually spins across the screen and ends up facing the other way, which will almost certainly get you killed if you try doing it anywhere other than at the designated turning-around points.
The stage is split into two halves – the first is inside the base, where you have to time your movements to pass through shutters that open and close rhythmically and avoid missiles than can be easily baited into launching while you’re a safe distance away from them. Don’t worry, the helicopter has no momentum, so tricking the missiles into launching is very straightforward.
In the second half of area, you’re attacked by some of the professor’s loyal troops. Extremely loyal, given that even though their leader has been killed they’re still willing to take on an attack helicopter armed with nothing more than pistols and jetpacks that seem to be made from rejected fireworks. This part seems a bit more difficult at first – until you realise that because the helicopter’s nose angles downwards when you’re moving, you can shoot diagonally downwards, destroying the jetpack men before they can even lift off. That’s my top tip for this section, then. I've even come up with a little rhyme as a memory aid: get your nose down and the bad guy goes down.


The bomb is a large, round, traditionally cartoonish, Batman-just-can’t get-rid-of-it bomb, because of course it is. Did you not see the rest of this game’s graphics? At the very outside I suppose it might have been a bundle of dynamite.


Now all that’s left is to fly back into the cave, drop off the bomb and leave. Yeah, I know having to essentially do the same thing three times sounds kinda lame, but each run is short enough that it doesn’t get too wearing, and it’s not as though the helicopter’s a pain in the arse to fly or anything.


The game ends with a shocking twist: the professor isn’t dead at all! All you managed to destroy was a “robot simulacrum.” And, you know, his headquarters and all his henchmen. The professor goes on to call Agent X the “son of a silly person,” so we’ve got our sequel hook right there. Agent X is out for revenge in Agent X 2: My Mother Was a God Damn Saint.


The actually is an Agent X 2, and after playing through this game I’m looking forward to giving it a shot one day. Agent X might be a simple game, but it’s well executed and when it goes to Spectrum games I’ll take “well-executed simplicity” any day of the week. The crosshair section is be the weakest part but even that’s not bad, and the rest of the game is a fun little romp blessed by both an engagingly goofy cartoon style and a lack of vicious difficulty spikes. Also, did I mention the lives counter? Because I really do love that thing. All in all, Agent X is easily one of the better ZX Spectrum games I’ve played recently, even with the awful keyboard controls. All that remains is for me to apologise to the residents of Hartlepool, and I’ll see you next time.

8 comments:

  1. Iirc Agent X 2 has an arkanoid clone stage... for some reason

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    1. Well, gotta keep things... fresh? I guess?

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  2. So... what's up with the "brain" gauge? Is it a timer?

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    1. My best guess is yes. Apparently the evil scientist is trying to drain the President's brain of "peace" so he only thinks about "war". Hence "The Brain Drain Caper".

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    2. As far as I can tell it's a timer, yeah - although it seemed kind of inconsisent when I was playing so maybe it's influenced by other factors.

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. You really should have included the games box art in this article because it's great. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_X_(1986_video_game)

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    1. I did post it over on the Tumblr, I just didn't find a decent way to work it into the article.

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