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Spectrum Analyzer: Capcom Arcade Classics

From the Atari 2600 to the NES to the Sega Genesis, you thought you've experienced everything there is to know about retro. Don't get too cocky though, Americans! There's a whole other chapter of classic gaming you've likely missed. Pack your bags... 1UP is taking an extended trip to England to discover:


In last week’s installment, we learned about Manic Miner, and with it, the kinds of games the Spectrum does best… cleverly designed action titles with a laid back pace, simple yet attractive graphics, and plenty of challenge. However, what the Spectrum doesn’t handle well are arcade games. It was a budget computer with hardware to match, and it just didn’t wasn’t designed to handle the rich detail and intense action of hits like Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Strider, and Bionic Commando. However, since the Spectrum was all many British families could afford, and because arcade ports were big business in the late 1980s, it got plenty of them anyway.

Thanks to publishers like Elite and US Gold, the bulk of Capcom’s arcade games found a second home on the Spectrum. None of these conversions were in danger of being mistaken for their coin-op counterparts, but some were well adapted for the computer and genuinely fun to play. Others bombed so hard, they left fifty foot wide craters in the British countryside. Today, we’ll offer our impressions of a random sample of these extremely optimistic conversions.

GHOSTS ‘N GOBLINS

If you thought Ghosts ‘n Goblins was tough before, the Spectrum version will really put some hair on your chest… before tearing it out strand by strand with a pair of pliers! All the essentials of the game are still there, with the always chivalrous but rarely modest knight Arthur fighting to rescue his love from Lucifer and his children of the night. As usual, one hit from the creepy creatures in each stage strips Arthur of his armor, while the next strips him of his life. However, you’ll quickly notice that the bad guys no longer play by the rules established in the arcade game. For instance, instead of rising up from their graves, the zombies walk out of them as if ascending a flight of stairs, making them aggravatingly hard to hit and putting Arthur’s life in even more peril than usual. Even the graphics add to the challenge, with the sickly yellow knight and his foes camouflaged against the cliff faces in the background. Once again, Britain proves that there’s a big difference between an ordinary video game master and a Spectrum master… if you can finish this with the game’s allotment of nine lives, you not only deserve a medal, but a six figure salary and a corner office at Capcom’s headquarters.

GHOULS ‘N GHOSTS

It was pretty ballsy for Software Creations to attempt a cutting-edge sequel to a game that didn’t work so well on the Spectrum in the first place. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was a milestone for the video game industry, demonstrating the power of 16-bit hardware and building a strong foundation for the Sega Genesis during its early lean years. What it’s doing on the 8-bit Spectrum is anyone’s guess, but aside from the unavoidably downscaled graphics, it’s actually a pretty impressive port. Unlike the Spectrum conversion of Ghosts ‘n Goblins, all the enemies act the way they should, and their attacks are possible to dodge if you’re quick on the controller. There’s also stronger contrast with the background, so you’ll never lose Arthur to a swampy mess of yellow pixels. The only downsides are that the chests are even more likely to be stocked with those damned magicians (“no, don’t turn me into the duck again- oh, Aflac!”) and that firing upward can be tricky, since “up” on the controller is already assigned to jump. It also bears mentioning that although there’s no music during gameplay, the song played in the title screen is incredible for an 8-bit composition and instantly recognizable as the theme from the arcade game’s second stage. It’s no substitute for Ghouls ‘n Ghosts on the Genesis or SuperGrafx, but on the less powerful Spectrum, this game is every bit the killer app that it was on those two formats.

STRIDER

Here’s another defining moment for the 16-bit generation of gaming, which British developers attempted to squeeze into the cramped confines of the Spectrum. This time, however, they would have been far better off leaving this one to the big leagues. Strider is a limp conversion of the arcade hit, without so much as an ounce of ambition or love for the source material. The graphics are almost exclusively monochrome, with just a splash of color in the status bar, the most awe-inspiring power ups are missing, and the number of onscreen enemies has been drastically reduced. Hiryu doesn’t even burst into his signature energy wave when he’s killed, exploding just like any of the game’s other characters before a sudden and jarring transition to the last reached checkpoint. This crummy conversion knocks the wind right out of all the breathtaking moments from the arcade game… even the memorable battle against Ouroboros has been reduced to a mindless battle of attrition because it’s impossible to leap onto the serpentine robot’s back. It would be easy to pin the blame for the game’s failings on the Spectrum itself, but the quality work done on Ghouls ‘n Ghosts suggests that a lot more effort could have been put into this release.

(The game seems to have been well received in its native Britain, if the reviews on Crash and Sinclair User are any indication. Yeah, I don't get it, either.)

BIONIC COMMANDO

There are actually two versions of this game… the first is for the 48K model of the Spectrum released in 1982, while the second is for the beefed up 128K machine offered years later. The two games seem identical at first glance, but crank up the volume on your television set and you’ll quickly notice the difference. While the 48K game is content with blips and clicks, its more robust cousin serenades you with a remarkably faithful adaptation of the arcade game’s soundtrack, including the iconic military march in the second stage that would become the theme song of the NES remake. Look more closely and you’ll notice subtle changes to the bionic arm physics that make the 128K version of Bionic Commando the superior conversion. Rad Spencer violently swings from the arm in the game designed for legacy machines, making it tough to time a dismount, but the less frantic swinging in the 128K game makes it less likely that you’ll leap face first into a cluster of spikes. Unfortunately, both ports share many of the same problems, including overly busy backgrounds and choppy scrolling. Also, the lead character is bizarrely drawn, looking more like a gimpy Muppet than the spike-haired, shades-sporting action hero we all remember from the NES. It may seem like I’m nitpicking, but really, watch this guy run and tell me that’s not just a little distracting!

Special thanks to World of Spectrum web site for its scans of classic Sinclair magazines. By the way, Jeremy, if you're reading this, we need to talk about this Justin Bieber rank. I didn't even know who he was until that showed up, and once I found out, a little part of me died inside.



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