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Fruit Machine Simulator for the ZX Spectrum

Fruit Machine Simulator
Fruit Machine Simulator by Codemasters

I’ve always been partial to a bit of a flutter, and I was particularly drawn to the fruit machine and casino game simulations on the early home computers.  Due to the relatively simple graphical requirements of these early games, they would often appear as listings in magazines – I can remember spending hours typing in a BASIC listing for a really very mediocre offering.

The Spectrum had it’s fair share of commercial fruit machine and casino games, which were launched 20 years before the availability of online gaming sites such as partybingo.com, and casual gaming apps for Blackjack and Poker on iOS and Android devices.  Home computers really were the place to be if you wanted this kind of gaming experience outside an arcade or Bingo Hall.

Back in the early 80’s the arcades were not only full of great games, but also the more traditional slot machines which had to become more exciting in order to retain the attention of their shared audience.   As the fruit machine developed more features and become more game-like, rather than just repeatedly spinning reels waiting for a win, it was only natural that home computers would be the natural target for fruit machine simulators.  The home computers at the time were owned by a much wider demographic than that of the equivalent consoles, which were targeted at the under 18’s, and unlikely to release these kinds of games.

Fruit Machine Simulator
Fruit Machine Simulator

My first experience of these games was Codemasters Fruit Machine Simulator, a popular distributor of budget games, this one being available for £1.99, which was probably about right for a niche game of this kind.  The game attempted to recreate the feeling of a fruit machine of the time, which started to feature special bonus games as well as just matching fruit.  The simulation centred around the usual Fruit Machine formula – match fruits to win, or hold fruits with numbers on to light up the bonus letters until full, unlocking the bonus game.  Once unlocked the bonus game could earn you extra cash through features such as a skill stop, my personal favourite, where you had to time a key press to stop a flashing light at the right time and increase the cash prize.

The game received mixed reviews at the time, ranging from tedious to brilliant depending on your perspective – I loved fruit machines so I loved the game, I am sure there are other who just wouldn’t get it.  Play it in isolation of a real Fruit Machine and it just wouldn’t be the same.

Looking back, the game seems representative of a time when we were still working out what home computers were for, people would experiment with different programs to see what worked and what didn’t, as we didn’t really have a frame of reference, and everything was a first.  I’m sure you would struggle to get interest in this kind of game as a free browser based application today, but in the 80’s it was yet another reason to fire up the Spectrum and try something new.  Plus you didn’t risk losing your pocket money to the one-armed bandits.

Galaga by Namco – Retro Arcade Review

At the time of writing, summer is here, and I am reminded of hot days spent in the arcades playing games like space shooter Galaga.  In the early 80’s my holidays would be spent camping with my family, and many of the campsites we visited would have a clubhouse and games room, and my pocket money would be spent indulging my habit on whatever cabinets were available.

galaga arcade konami screenshot
Galaga Arcade
In 1981 Galaga was the game of the summer for me, released by Namco as a successor to one of my previous favourites, Galaxians.  Having played the excellent space shooter Galaxians to excess I was keen to master it’s sequel – Galaxians’ diving aliens were a revelation to me after playing the more pedestrian Space Invaders, and I was sure that Galaga would be even better.

The first thing you notice on firing up Galaga is the graphics – big, colourful and incredibly fast, faster than anything that had come before it.  Rather than being presented with all of your enemies at the start of each wave, columns of aliens would fly in from the left and right, presenting an opportunity to take a few out before they fell into formation – if you could hit them.  Fortunately, unlike Space Invaders and Galaxians, your Galaga ship had the ability to fire multiple missiles, rather than waiting for each to hit home before you could launch the next, and this was absolutely necessary in Galaga due to the speed of the enemy ships.

Once the enemy ships were in formation they would begin to attack, and like Galaxian’s, small groups of attackers would break off and dive bomb your ship, requiring you to either avoid them and their missiles, or stand firm and destroy them for extra points.  Care was needed to avoid being trapped in a corner due to the angle of the dive, and also look out for the bigger ships which need 2 hits, although they do change colour after the first hit to remind you.

With each hit you are rewarded with a great sound effect, sounding like a kind of high pitched squelch, similar to the sound of pac-man eating a pill.  With the speed of Galaga, the sound created was a constant chattering and chirping that was an audible reminder of the success of each shot.

Beam me Up

At certain points, the large green and blue “boss” aliens at the top of the formation would dive, and half way down the screen fire a tractor beam towards the player.  You have 2 options here, either destroy the boss before he grabs your ship, or allow yourself to be “beamed up” by the alien and lose a life.  At this point your ship is returned to the formation, and will begin to attack your remaining vessels along with it’s wingmen.  If however you can destroy the wingmen of your captured ship, it will be returned to you giving you a “double ship” with twice the width but also twice the firepower.  This extra firepower comes in handy from stage 3 onwards…

Galaga Bonus Stage

[amazon asin=B004UJLNMQ&template=iframe image]Starting at level 3 (and every 4th stage after) you will be presented with a bonus round, where the Galaga ships would fly onto the screen and off again, following erratic flight formations, whilst you try to shoot them all down.  The trick with the bonus level is to find the point on the screen through which all the aliens must travel repeatedly, and at the slowest point of their flight, in order to maximise your chance of hitting all of them.

After 5 waves, each having 8 enemies, you are given a bonus score based on the number of ships you manage to take out, with 40 (obviously) being a perfect score. Hitting all the enemy ships see you rewarded with a special bonus of 10,000 points.  It is possible to score a perfect 40 without a twin ship, but it makes it a lot easier so is highly recommended.

There is a bug in the system that means that only player 2 can score more than 999,990 points, as player 1 is limited to 6 characters for the score.  You’d better get a screenshot though, as only the first 6 digits will display on the high score screen regardless of player number.


Matthew Broderick playing Galaga in War Games
Galaga in the movie “War Games”

The Galaga game appeared in the movie War Games starring Matthew Broderick, as one of the “latest games” his character downloads from the hacked servers of the an un-named computer company.
At the time I thought this was a fantastic idea, and wanted to make me build my own computer to play arcade games, it’s only 30 years later that I actually managed it with my MAME project.
Looking back the idea of downloading a game from a remote computer to play at home was like witchcraft, whereas 30 years later you can do it on your mobile phone. Back then Matthew Broderick needed his own computer and a dial-up modem with an acoustic coupler, all very exotic stuff.

Home versions

Galaga Konami NES version screenshot
Galaga NES Version

Galaga was released on number of home consoles and computers, the most notable being the Atari 7800 and NES versions, as well as a later port to the Gameboy, where it was bundled with Galaxians.  Modern consoles can access Galaga through the Namco Museum compilations, and it has also had the iPhone treatment as part of Galaga 30th Anniversary Collection,  which is available as a free download from the iTunes store.

Of all the home versions I would have to go with the NES release as being the most faithful.  Despite playing all of the recent conversions and compilations I can’t recreate the feeling of playing Galaga on an upright machine, so when I am in need of a fix I will head back to my MAME cabinet, which takes me all the way back to the summer of 1981.

Snow Bros. Nick and Tom Retro Arcade Review

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. Arcade Screenshot
Snow Bros. was released by Toaplan in 1990, whilst I was at University, and my first experience was playing in the basement of the Student Union. My first thought was that the game was very similar to Bubble Bobble, with the bubbles being replaced with snowballs. My second thought was that I may have to ditch my afternoon lecture on microprocessors to play this game, it was that good. 20 years later and I am still playing Snow Bros, now on my recently completed MAME cabinet, and a recent late night game session prompted me to finally write this retro review.

Snow Bros Arcade Marquee

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 snowballs, incapacitating them for a period of time. Kick the 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.

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

Take too long to clear the screen, and you will be attacked by an invincible pumpkin-head monster, which can only be slowed down with snow, not destroyed.

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.

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.

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.

Home Conversions

Snow Bros for the Megadrive

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.

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.

Yie Ar Kung Fu for the ZX Spectrum

Yie Ar Kung Fu started life as an arcade game released by Konami in 1985, having features that were seen for the first time in a fighting game, including multiple opponents, a health bar and multiple special moves. This really was the birth of a genre which has spawned 100’s of one on one fighters, including series such as Street Fighter, Tekken and Soul Caliber.

Yie Ar Kung Fu ZX Spectrum
Yie Ar Kung Fu ZX Spectrum
The Yie Ar Kung Fu game on the Spectrum was a faithful rendition of the original game, and featured a martial arts master, Oolong, whose mission was to fight through a series of bouts against increasingly difficult competitors. Moves were achieved through the joystick and a punch and kick buttons, and included jumping attacks. With practise you could pull off moves such as leg sweeps and roundhouses, which were needed to defeat each of your opponents different fighting styles. Whilst not the first game to feature hand to hand combat, earlier games such as Kung Fu Master had a very limited move set, with basic punch and kick moves. The Spectrum version of Yie Ar Kung Fu managed to replicate all 16 special moves from the original arcade game, providing a great variety in the approach to defeating each opponent. This did however mean that playing on the keyboard required use of 9 different keys, and so a joystick really was the preferred option.

This video is the enhanced 128k version with fancy fonts and improved music and effects

Yie Ar Kung Fu advert
Yie Ar Kung Fu advert

The winner is the first to 10 points (or hits) in a single bout, each hit reducing the opponents life bar, a feature that carried across to pretty much every fighting game that followed. Each of your 10 different opponents had unique moves and attacks, some armed with weapons such as swords, nunchaku, chains and throwing stars. A different strategy was required for each, dodging attacks and timing your strikes at a moment of weakness.

The graphics of the Spectrum version of Yie Ar Kung Fu were detailed, if a little less colourful than on other conversions, mainly due to the Spectrum’s attribute clash issues. But this didn’t stop it from being a great game, and remembered fondly by many Spectrum owners.

Along with “Way of the Exploding Fist”, this game represents the height of fighters on the Spectrum (a machine not ideally suited to the genre) and is memorable for being my first experience of a proper fighting game.

Grandstand Scramble 80’s Retro Handheld Game

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.

Scramble arcade game by Konami
Scramble arcade game by Konami

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.

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 Handheld Game
Grandstand Scramble Handheld

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.

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.  The differences 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 Scramble Pocket Handheld 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.