Tag Archives: Retro

Handheld Games – The RolyRetro Collection

One of my earliest video gaming experiences was at the end of term in my primary school, where we all got to bring in a toy and lessons were given over to general playtime. Amongst all of the classic board games like Mouse Trap and Kerplunk, I spotted a small tabletop machine that had a crowd of excited boys around it. A loud bleeping noise could be heard above the chatter – it was my introduction to the world of handheld games.

The object of my desire – Astro Wars
The game was Astro Wars, and I can’t remember wanting to play with anything as much before or since. Except maybe the first time I saw a sit down Star Wars cabinet.

CGL Galaxy Invader
Galaxy Invader by CGL

I didn’t really have the cash back then to buy these handheld games, which even at the end of 1980 retailed at around £30 – with inflation around £120 in today’s money – for a dedicated console that only had one game on it. I did get a more basic handheld, a Space Invader clone called Galaxy Invader, which I played to death, but I really wanted that Astro Wars game.

Time passed and the handheld games made way for cartridge based consoles that plugged into the TV, and my interests moved onto home computers like the BBC Micro and the ZX Spectrum.

Handheld Games Aplenty

Many years later in 2004 and my 34 year old self came across an Astro Wars game on ebay, and I was instantly back in that primary school, lusting after this amazing game. I had kept up my video game habit over the years, always having at least one current generation console, but had never thought that I could go back and buy the old handheld games I could never afford as a kid. But there it was, a mint Astro Wars for a tenner. A quick bid and it was mine.

Now for anyone who has been bitten by the ebay bug, you will know how easy it is to get drawn into a bidding frenzy, and this was how my handheld collection started. I wanted some more of the Grandstand games, so I bid on titles like Scramble and Munchman, as well as the Game & Watch titles that I had lusted after as a child such as Donkey Kong. From there I diversified into tabletop games by Tomy and Hales, as well as some of the US titles by Coleco with their great multi-coloured cases.

These games would arrive at my house, and every day after work was like Christmas as I opened up the next parcel, and another memory from 30 years ago would hit me – when I first saw the game, who owned it, what was playing on the radio. It was such a buzz, my wife and kids could not understand my excitement at playing with these old handheld games.

My spare room was filling with games…

At a certain stage I had to take stock, I had so many games building up I was starting to get doubles, and with nowhere formal to display them in my house, my spare room started to resemble that of a compulsive hoarder, with boxes piled from floor to ceiling. By this point I had examples from all of the major manufacturers of the time, not complete sets but all of the most popular examples, and never having paid more than 10 to 15 quid a unit. I had been buying regularly for around 2 years, but due to work pressures and a growing family, I put my collection on hold.

A few years passed by, 3 kids later and having finally got around to renovating my house, the only room left was the spare room, so I had to face my handheld game collection, also know as “dad’s massive pile of old tat”. The spare room needed to be converted into my son’s room, but I negotiated a wall that would house my collection. A wonderful weekend was spent going through the boxes, selecting the best examples for display, and generally discovering my handheld games collection all over again.

Games from Grandstand, CGL, Tomy and Hales

When I could finally see all the games together I realised I had built a fairly comprehensive collection of 80’s handhelds, when all I had really set out to do was acquire some of the games I had missed out on as a child.

What next for my Handheld Games collection?

Now I have finally admitted that I am a collector, I have an OCD like urge to fill the gaps, although I am now looking at some of the rarer and therefore more expensive items. There are a couple of units that I would really like to add, such as the arcade cabinet shaped games from Coleco, and a rare Thomas the Tank Engine game from Grandstand, which are going to set me back a few quid. I have also avoided the temptation of building a full Game & Watch collection, as at over 60 games, and a huge amount of competition, this could cost a small fortune.

For now I am just enjoying having the games on display where I can easily get to them and play them, and with my eldest son at the same age as when I first discovered them, he is starting to understand my handheld games obsession.

My favourite handheld games
Some of my favourite handhelds – including Astro Wars

If anyone has any interesting old games looking for a new home, please contact me at alex@retrogamesnow.co.uk

Snow Bros. Nick and Tom Retro Arcade Review

What was the Snow Bros arcade game all about?

There are some games which I hesitate to write about, as they are so good I just don’t feel I will do justice to them, and I put them off to another day. On this list would be the original Star Wars arcade game, as well as the classic Track & Field, neither of which I am quite ready to tackle. Snow Bros may not be as well known as these games, but until now it was also on my list.

Snow Bros. was released by Toaplan in 1990, whilst I was at University, and my first experience was playing in the basement of Aston Student Union. My first thought was that the game was very similar to Bubble Bobble, with the bubbles being replaced by snowballs. My second thought was that I may have to ditch my afternoon lecture on microprocessors to play this game, it was that good. 30 years later and I am still playing Snow Bros using an original (well a bootleg) PCB, and a recent late night game session prompted me to finally write this retro review.

Arcade Marquee for the Snow Bros game

Snow Bros Gameplay

Snow Bros is a platform game starring two brothers, Nick and Tom, whose mission is to rid the world of monsters, using the power of snow. Each level, which features different platform and monster combinations, requires you to destroy all of the enemies in order to progress to the next. Your Snow Brother achieves this by throwing snow at the monsters until they turn into large snowballs, incapacitating them for a period of time. Kick the monster/snowball, and it bounces around the screen and destroys the monster when it reaches the bottom, as well as killing any other monsters it encounters along the way.

Playing Snow Bros Arcade

Snow Bros Arcade Screenshot
Snow Bros. Arcade Screenshot

The trick with Snow Bros is to turn as many monsters into snowballs as you can, without kicking them, and then kick one at the top of the screen to destroy all of the monsters on the way down. This generates a big bonus in the form of currency which drop from the top of the screen and need to be collected quickly before the level ends.

There are various monsters to be found as you progress, each with different characteristics, requiring different approaches to destroy:

  • Red monsters can move around the screen in the same way as the Snow Bros, and can only kill you by touching you
  • Yellow monsters can run on all fours and move quicker than Red Monsters, killing you on contact
  • Green monsters move slowly but breath fire, which can kill you from long distances
  • Blue monsters spin like mini-tornados, and can move through platforms and attack you directly

You will be attacked by an invincible pumpkin-head monster if you take too long to clear a screen, although he can be slowed down with a well-timed snowball.

Destroying monsters gives you bonuses which come in two forms, either a piece of sushi for extra points, or a bonus potion that will give you extra powers, including faster movement, big snowballs and increased throwing range. A green bottle provides a special bonus, where your snow brother inflates like a balloon and whizzes around the screen killing everything he comes into contact with.

Snow Bros Boss Levels

At the end of every 10 levels, which in classic Donkey Kong style, progress upwards, you will encounter a boss. These boss levels provide a break from the platform levels, and take some time to work out. There are 5 bosses to be beaten across the 50 levels in the game, including a giant lizard, a big pink head, and a pair of yellow birds who can be destroyed by turning their weapons back on them. Each boss will have a different projectile to throw at you, and by turning these into snowballs, they can be kicked at the boss to cause damage, indicated by a health bar at the top of the screen.

Snow Bros Arcade Boss Level
Snow Bros 1st Boss Level 10

Like many classic platformers, there are multiple ways to complete Snow Bros, and developing the optimum approach for each screen is part of the challenge if you want to progress to latter stages. Even then, this game is going to take some beating, with later levels a veritable minefield of enemies approaching you from all angles.

Snow Bros Home Conversions

Few home conversions were made for this game, but there were good versions produced for the NES and the Sega Megadrive (Genesis), with the Sega version being the most authentic. There was also a version for the Gameboy that is worth a play.

Snow Bros Megadrive

Returning to the game now, I instinctively repeat the tactics learned on and off over twenty years, almost on auto-pilot, until I get to level 20 and above, when all tactics go out of the window and I switch to survival mode.

Snow Bros. may have caused me to miss a few university lectures, possibly cost me a grade or two, but it was worth it.

Grandstand Scramble 80’s Retro Handheld Game

Grandstand Scramble Handheld
Grandstand Scramble Handheld

Grandstand Games

If you were a kid in the late 70’s and early 80’s it is likely you will have owned, or knew someone who owned a Grandstand handheld game. For many retro gamers this was their first real “video game” – for me it was Galaxy Invader, but games like Astro Wars and Munchman were also incredibly popular. These were handheld versions of popular arcade games such as Galaxians and Pac-man, but only one of these Granstand games was named after an arcade original, and that was Scramble.

Arcade Scramble

The arcade Scramble was one of the earliest side scrolling shooters, relased by Konami in 1981 and set the format for such classics as Gradius and R-Type. The arcade version of Scramble featured a novel weapon configuration of a front facing missile, and bomb which followed a realistic arc to destroy ground based enemies. As an additional twist, you had limited fuel, and had to destroy fuel depots in order to top up (not quite sure of the logic here). This introduced a risk / reward element to the game, requiring you to concentrate not only on avoiding the scenery and enemies, but also keep up your rocket fuel levels to stay in the air.

Scramble arcade game by Konami
Scramble arcade game by Konami

Grandstand Scramble Handheld

Grandstand Scramble followed a similar in not identical format, a neat trick considering the limited capabilities of the Vacuum flourescent Display (VFD) which could only show fixed graphical images which could be turned on and off, like the LCD display of a Nintendo Game & Watch. Unlike earlier Grandstand games, the VFD was multi coloured, and through clever use of the space managed to pack in multiple images into each square on the screen, allowing the display of a missile one moment, and a spaceship the next. By scrolling the bottom layer of laser turrets, the impression of movement was acheived, with your player ship on the left of the screen shooting to the right.

Grandstand Scramble “Red Letter” Version
Grandstand Scramble Handheld “red letter” version

Before you get to the display though, the first thing that strikes you about Grandstand Scramble is the size of the game, this is no handheld, not unless you are a weightlifter, its more a tabletop game, and is best played resting on a flat surface. You could use an adapter, but if you wanted it truly portable you were looking filling it with “D” type batteries, the biggest and heaviest you can get, and normally only used these days in high powered torches. With these loaded the game is VERY heavy.

The other thing you notice when you fire up the game is the sound, which is incredibly loud, and would be extremely annoying to anyone within shouting distance. With no headphone option, the game is best played alone, in a locked and soundproofed room.

Grandstand Scramble handheld gameplay

Controls were well thought out, with a proper joystick and separate bomb and missile buttons, and a big on off switch. Everything feels very physical, and you imagine the individual plastic buttons connecting with the metal switches beneath as you play.

The objective of the game was not identical to the arcade version, as there was no scenery, and no requirement to refuel, just shoot enemies, bomb the ground based gun emplacements, and get to the end of the game before losing the 3 lives available.  

There were five distinct phases to Grandstand’s Scramble:

  • Phase 1 destroy 4 waves of fighters that move towards you from the right in groups of four. Don’t get hit by missives or the enemy ships
  • Phase 2 destroy 4 base ships on the right, by first shooting the fighters they fire you in a zig-zag pattern
  • Phase 3 destroy a single moving base ship that fires fighters directly at you, while avoiding missiles fired up from the (now active) bases below
  • Phase 4 the base ship is now firing missiles at you, and asteroids are raining from the sky. Destroy the base ship enough times to proceed
  • Phase 5 avoid meteorites and destroy the moving energy base at the bottom of the screen

The differences to arcade Scramble are probably down to the fact that the game was not designed to be a Scramble clone, but a rebranded version of a Japanese game from Epoch called Astro Warrior.  Presumably Grandstand thought it would sell more with the arcade association.

Grandstand Pocket Scramble LCD Game
Grandstand Pocket Scramble

There were 2 versions available, the only difference seeming to be the colour of the word Scramble on the front of the game.  I have both (see my video below), and that’s the only difference I could find between the 2. Grandstand also released a Game & Watch style version of Scramble with an LCD screen and virtually identical gameplay to the arcade game – this time a true handheld, powered by watch batteries, which you could fit in a shirt pocket.

What happened to Grandstand Games?

Not much is documented about the Grandstand company other than it imported and rebranded its products from manufacturers such as Epoch and Tomy, releasing games in the UK and New Zealand, and that it ceased to exist some time in the Eighties. For a company with such a short career, it managed to make its mark on a whole generation of gamers, and produced some games that were so well built that they are still being used 30 years later.

Gunstar Heroes for the Sega Megadrive

The Sega Megadrive was never short of great games, but developer Treasure managed to create a smash with Gunstar Heroes, it’s very first commercial release in 1993. Back then the name Treasure was relatively unknown, well before they received worldwide acclaim for games such as Bangai-O, Sin & Punishment and Ikaruga.

gunstar heroes megadrive case
Gunstar Heroes for the Sega Megadrive

Gunstar Heroes uses the horizontal run and gun format familiar to players of Contra, Metal Slug and Forgotten Worlds, scrolling left to right with multiple platforms and routes through each level.  An over-complicated game intro establishes that your heroes “Red” and “Blue” have to cross deserts, aerial platforms, caverns and huge battleships on a mission to rescue Red’s brother “Green” from the evil “Black”.

Gunstar Heroes Gameplay

There are 7 levels to complete, each featuring unique locations and level bosses, and a whole bunch of minor enemies and mini-bosses to defeat along the way. In fact so many that the screen sometimes seems filled with sprites, projectiles and huge blooming explosions, all of which dont seem to incur any kind of slowdown from the 16 bit heart of the Megadrive.

Gunstar Heroes Megadrive screenshot
Gunstar Heroes – Explosions!

You can choose from 4 weapons, Force, Lightning, Fire and Chaser, which can be combined to make hybrid weapons, which give different perks and allow for different playstyles. In two player mode you can even work in tandam, throwing each other at weaker enemies being another way of destroying them as well as the huge bosses.

Bucking convention, you could pick from any one of 4 levels to start, allowing you to take different routes through the game should you get stuck, which due to the advanced difficulty levels, would often happen. Death would come when you took a certain number of hits and drained your power bar, giving you the opportunity to quit the game or return to the start of the current level.

As with all Treasure games to follow, the sprites were incredibly detailed, and they wrestled every last inch of processing power out of the Megadrive, with the kind of graphical scaling and rotation normally associated with the FX chip augmentented Super Nintendo.

Gunstar Heroes Bosses

Gunstar Heroes Cavern Level
Gunstar Heroes cavern level

Some of the stand out moments include the “sand” boss, created from shifting blocks of sand forming different shapes including a “running man”, a Treasure hallmark, with this character also featuring in later shmup Radiant Silvergun.  There is also a “boardgame” level full of bosses, and a mine level featuring an Indiana Jones style minecart chase.

Playing Gunstar Heroes Today

Getting hold of Gunstar Heroes these days is hampered by its relative rarity and cult status, but you can still obtain a copy on ebay for around £20, and you can also find it on the Sega Megadrive Classic Collection, with 3 other games – which bizarrely is cheaper.  360 owners can also download from XBOX Live Arcade.

There was also a sequel, Gunstar Super Heroes on the Nintendo Gameboy Advance, which had great reviews but didn’t achieve the same cult status as the Megadrive original.

Whilst not selling in the volumes it deserved, due to Treasures’ lack of previous form at the time, and any kind of marketing muscle – it just couldn’t compete with the kind of money being spent on the Blue Hedgehog.  For lucky gamers who did stumble upon it, they got to experience one of the great games of the 16 bit era, and the birth of a developer who would go on to be recognised as one of the greatest.

Strider Arcade Retro Review

Strider Hiryu – Capcom’s Arcade Hero

My first introduction to Capcom’s Strider was not through the arcade cabinet, but the excellent Megadrive port, which was like nothing I had seen before, with it’s huge sprites and fantastically varied levels and incredible bosses – it was an arcade revelation.  At it’s heart, Strider is a side scrolling beat-em-up, but that simple description does the game a huge injustice.

Strider - mechanical monkey
One of the more impressive bosses
Set in a futuristic world, your “Strider” Hiryu must leap and slash his way through 5 levels in order to defeat the evil Meio, whose army has taken control of several European states.  The mission begins with Hiryu flying in on his hang-glider, before he leaps into action in the first level, a Russia themed location.  The first thing that grabs you is the size of the characters and the detailed animation, with Hiryu able to leap directly upwards, or cartwheel left of right.  He can also grip onto platforms above him, grappling across chasms, and perform a sliding tackle move.  His main weapon is a light sabre that is used to perform rapid slash movements to dispatch enemies.

To help Strider Hiryu on his way, various power-ups can be obtained including wingmen in the form of a small robot, a big metallic cat and a mechanical hawk, each of which feature their own special moves and animations.

Stride Arcade Hill Section
Strider Arcade – Hill Section

The five levels include the Russian location, snowy Siberia, a flying warship, the jungle of the Amazon and finally Meio’s Moonbase.  Each level is distinctly different in terms of the format, the enemies and tactics required to complete, and within each level there are mini-bosses, as well as end of level bosses, depicted using hugely detailed sprites.  Stand out bosses include a terminator-style mechanical gorilla with a huge reach, and a looping snake monster that needs to be beaten by jumping on it back.

Strider Megadrive / Genesis Console Conversion

One thing you realise very quickly is that it is HARD.  Strider only has 5 levels, but to see all of them will have cost you a few 10p pieces back in the arcade, as death was frequent and certain points in the game were very tough to navigate.  Thankfully the Megadrive port was incredibly faithful to the arcade orginal, and allowed you to perfect your technique without costing you a fortune. In fact the console conversion was so good it made it into my list of Top 10 Megadrive / Genesis Games.If you haven’t had the chance to play Strider, I recommend this is the best way of sampling one of CAPCOM’s finest games and a real retro classic that represents the pinnacle of 2D arcade gaming.

Strider 3 – the Return of Strider Hiryu on PS4 and Xbox One

Due to the popularity of the original Strider games, the series received a reboot in 2014, entitled simply Strider, but for the purposes of this article I’d call it Strider 3. The game was launched for the latest XBOX One and Playstation 4 platforms, as well as the last generation XBOX and PS3, and followed the original Strider story, as Hiryu battles against the evil Grandmaster Meio.

I’ve yet to play this version, but it’s on my growing list, and it will be interesting to compare this version of the Strider universe with the fantastic arcade original.

Thanks to The Games Shed for recording this video specially for me, please pay the shed a visit at www.thegamesshed.co.uk.

Missile Command Retro arcade review

The best trackball arcade game?

In the early 80’s we were at the height of the nuclear arms race, and the Doomsday clock representing our proximity to a nuclear war between the west and the Soviet Union was at 11:57. Released at the start of the escalation in 1980, Missile Command was a game that came to symbolise that arms race, painting a bleak picture of our chances should the war ever happen.

Missile Command Arcade
Missile Command by Atari

Charged with control of three anti-missile bunkers, your mission was to defend 6 cities at the bottom of the screen from attack by missiles raining down from the top. This classic arcade game from Atari was one of the first to feature a trackball, a kind of large upside-down mouse wheel, as opposed to the usual joystick control.

Missile Command Gameplay

You had 3 missile bases from which to launch counter-measures, which destroyed the missiles in mid flight before they could hit your cities, with each missile base having it’s own fire button.

The cursor on the screen controlled where your counter measure would strike, and you had to time firing to ensure the explosion caught the incoming missile in it’s halo.

Careful tactics were required to prevent using up your limited supply of ammo, so timing a shot to take out more than one missile was key to getting to the higher levels of the game. You could also allow a missile to strike a destroyed city and conserve your arsenal.

Destroying all missiles in a wave and keeping at least one city alive would allow you to progress to the next, faster wave. There was no end to the game, just ever faster and more agressive missile attacks, resulting in some frantic trackball spinning.


Missile Command Home Conversions

One of those simple but maddeningly addictive games, it was transferred to home consoles but never quite the same without the speed and accuracy of the trackball.  One of the most successful conversions, despite the blocky graphics and lack of a trackball was the Atari 2600 conversion, which was remarkably playable and captured the essence of the original.  It also featured some great box art, with evocative images of the missile launch control.

More recently the game has been recreated for iPad and iPhone as part of Atari’s Greatest Hits, but is spoiled by the touch screen controls, and only really playable using a bluetooth controller (see my review of the iCade controller).

A great game that sadly is no longer playable in its original form as most working cabinets are now in the hands of private collectors, and finding one in an arcade is very unlikely, at least in the UK.