When I was about ten, I was lucky enough to get a new Commodore Amiga 500, which was a big step up from our Acorn Electron and ZX Spectrum (even if Mark Dixon's Amiga 500+ and Amiga 1200 were far superior). Even into the early nineties, I was quite satisfied that the Commodore Amiga was better than the IBM-PC. PC versions of my favourite Amiga games seemed to have lower-resolution graphics with fewer colours and awful sound. The Amiga was just better. Until Doom was released on the PC, and suddenly the Amiga didn't seem to be able to keep up. The Amiga, as I knew it, didn't survive past the mid-nineties.
But it was very good while it lasted, so I've produced a look back at some of the most memorable games that soaked up quite a lot of my time when I should probably have been outdoors in the fresh air, reading a book or mingling with real people.
Rainbow Islands is a platform game. Your goal is to move vertically up each map, annihilating everything that moves by throwing inexplicably lethal rainbows at them. If you don't get to the top of the map quickly enough, flood waters rise up and drown you. On the one hand, Rainbow Islands was a warning about the effect of climate change on island populations. And on the other hand, it's an excercise in the total extermination of indigenous populations. But mostly it's a form of torture. With no level passwords and no way of saving your progress, it's very easy to see an hour of rainbow-hopping struggle wiped out by an ill-timed jump or an unexpected airborne enemy.
Because your rainbows act not only as a weapon but also as temporary platforms that allow you to jump up the map, red potions are a welcome sight. Getting a red potion increases your attack from a lone rainbow into a chain of two, or two into a chain of three, giving you much-needed extra reach. Unfortunately, every time you lose a life, you return to having only one rainbow. Possibly the worst time for this to happen is when you're facing the end-of-level baddie for Monster Island, a big vampire that spits bats like a sawn-off shotgun. You really, really need to have your three-rainbow ability to defeat him, and dying even once can mean that, no matter how many spare lives and credits you have left, you are likely doomed to miserable failure.
I spent quite some time playing Mercenary, and I never did work out what was going on. Crash-landing on a strange planet, you can buy an aircraft and whizz around above ground, then take an elevator down into labyrinthine subterranean bases full of long, empty corridors, objects that offer no clue as to their purpose, rooms that teleport you all over the place, and locked doors that you need shaped keys to enter. I never had a clue where I was. It was so bewildering that it was somehow compelling.
Mercenary is basically a text adventure converted into a 3D world rendered in less than sixteen colours. I was far too stupid and impatient to figure it out, but there are, even today — twenty-two years after the game was made — websites that offer a solution to Escape From Targ and its even more difficult companion game, The Second City.
Digital Image Design, 1989.
F29 Retaliator was a jet fighter simulation. Which meant that it was the first game I saw that came with a whopping great manual full of controls you had to learn before you could play it for more than twenty seconds without dying. Which meant that it took me ages to get into.
Even though enemy jets were fat black dots in the sky until you were dangerously close to them, and even though ground structures were simple cuboid shapes with serious aliasing problems, it wasn't about the graphics. It was about mastering a complicated game and downing enemy jets with AIM-120 missiles, then razing enemy fuel depots with Maverick missiles. Well, mastering the flight and combat elements of the game at least. I never could land on the runway reliably. Fortunately, and somewhat bizarrely, the US Air Force never did fire me for ejecting out of their million-dollar jet fighter at the end of every mission.
Reflections Interactive, 1990.
To activate the cheat mode for this game, head right at the start and ask the first pygmy about "TEN PINTS". Then realise that, even with cheat mode active, this game is nigh-on impossible to complete. Even with a step-by-step walkthrough telling you where to go and what to do, there are a dozen ways to trap yourself in a dead end with no escape. Forget to press a lever, or press the wrong lever, and you'll find that there's no way out of that pit you just jumped down into.
Like a text adventure spun into a sadistic platform game, Shadow of the Beast 2 requires you to combat fantastic enemies with a mace while leaping and climbing, and at the same time work out where you're going and what you're looking for. You need the ring from the goblin prison, but you can't escape the goblin prison without ale to make the guard drowsy, and you can't get the ale without going to the tavern in the far west, which means dodging the jumping fish at the bridge and killing the demon before he cuts the vine that you need to climb back up from the acid pits. The game design is either folly or genius. Either way, it's a very, very difficult game. Surely no one was ever crazy enough to complete this game without the cheat mode?
Ah, I did like Pang. It was one of the few games that I completed on the Amiga without cheating (albeit in the easy difficulty mode). The aim sounds simple enough. You just fire ground-anchored harpoons up at killer balloons to burst them. When a big bubble bursts, it splits into two smaller bubbles. Bursting a smaller bubble produces two even smaller bubbles, until the smallest size which just vanishes when you burst it. It's all made harder by ladders, obstacles, and slippery surfaces. What should be pretty straightforward ends up being quite strategic: should you target one particular set of bubbles, or get rid of all the big ones first? Head left or right at the start of the round? Stay low, or climb that ladder?
It was a simple game to play, but quite challenging and nicely varied from level to level.
The Bitmap Brothers, 1990.
In the future, people demand more guts from their sporting heroes, and real men compete in an arena by beating the shit out of each other to get possession of the ball. At least that's the view offered by Speedball 2. In this game, there are only a four controls: run around, throw the ball, catch the ball, and punch the nearest guy on the other team. If you throw the ball and then fail to catch it with another player on your team, don't worry. Just wander over to the guy on the other team, beat him silly, and then take the ball off of him. For even more fun, walk up to the other team's goalie, throw the ball to him so that his hands are occupied, then beat him to the ground and casually chuck the ball into the goal.
I was never great at controlling the players, so my favourite feature of the game was the management mode. Choose which star players to buy, then add kit that gives your players more resilience, more strength, more speed. Then you can just hit play and watch your team play the match as best they can. If you win, you move up the league table. I did, once, make it into the premier league. Only to find the opposing teams in the premier league were quite capable of kicking the shit out of my team without breaking a sweat.
Mindscape International, 1990.
Trapped in a jail cell somewhere in the future, your character uses a briefcase terminal to remotely control a team of four droids to come to his rescue. Using the buttons on the briefcase, you can command your team to land on distant planets, move around enemy bases, attack alien creatures (which is pretty much every creature you encounter), and set explosives on the generators of each base to raze it to the ground. On the way, you can buy better weapons, and swap feeble droid limbs for tougher droid limbs. The enemies get progressively harder, starting with furry triffid-like plants that you can take on with bare hands, to ED-209-looking metal monsters that require a barrage of heavy weaponry to take down.
Captive allegedly had 65,535 levels, but I only made it through ten of them. Captive was a very interesting game, but after ten levels it was clear that the game was basically one giant hashing algorithm. Every third level had the same floor and wall textures. Many of the monsters seemed very similar. The level objective each time seemed to be to blow up the generators in the base. I am almost entirely certain that no human has or ever will complete all 65,535 levels of Captive. But it was pretty good fun for a while.
Bullfrog Productions, 1993.
Syndicate was not the first real-time strategy game, being released after Dune II, and it wasn't exactly an RTS anyway. But Syndicate was so much more advanced. It featured maps with upper and lower levels, the ability to put your team into vehicles, weapons research to get better kit, and the option to purchase upgrades for your cybernetic soldiers.
Okay, so it wasn't possible to see your soldiers if they were inside or behind a building or under a platform. And your team of remote-control killers would inexplicably obey the rules of the road even if it meant they had to drive straight into heavy enemy fire that guaranteed a flaming death for your soldiers. And switching between weapons for all four of your team was a pain in the ass. And my copy of the game had a bug on a certain level that caused my team to fall into the ether every time they used a certain staircase. But the features of the game were impressive, and it was executed in a menacingly cynical way. Plus, the missile launcher kicked ass.
Other Amiga games that I remember fondly include Hammerfist, which featured a metal-fisted male brute that could transform into an acrobatic female; Buggy Boy, a somewhat ropey racing game that held my attention for a surprising number of hours; Terrorpods, which was strange and menacing; Escape From The Planet Of The Robot Monsters, which had some pretty catchy music; Ikari Warriors, an old-fashioned vertical-scrolling jungle commando shoot 'em up set against marching music; Xenon 2 Megablast, an old-fashioned vertical-scrolling space shoot 'em up set against funky music by Bomb The Bass; Hunter, a third-person 3D game that I only ever had a demo of; Rick Dangerous 2, a platform game with many perils; Cannon Fodder, an infuriatingly tricky game (beautiful skidoo my ass) with some darkly funny title music; The Chaos Engine, which offered great two-player team play; Hero Quest, which was far too difficult; the Alien Breed games, with their damned habit of giving you very little time to evacuate to minimum safe distance; and Frontier: Elite 2, a space trading and combat game that offered a real sense of freedom. And I remember so many more beyond that.
In the few years that the Amiga was my main computer, I seemed to play a hundred games. Possibly because games didn't need to be installed, so you could just stick a magazine demo diskette into the floppy drive and try the game out pretty easily. Possibly because games didn't cost a fortune to make in the old days, so they were produced by the bucketload. But probably it was because I just wasn't so old and jaded back in the old days.