Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Super International Cricket (1994/SNES)

Yearly editions of sports games are some of the biggest moneyspinners for the likes of Electronic Arts, and the bane of used game stores. Wandering through the shelves (well, wandering past the shelves, readers should recognise that the author is a dignified and respectable shopper) for used Playstation 2 titles in the late 00s gives you an idea of what doesn’t last. The later and greater titles in series are much harder to come by (SSX 3 took several visits to find), whereas some staples could almost be assured of a place in any sizeable display of used PS2 games. Poor Lara Croft was very much a victim of her own success, and the Legend and Anniversary editions, enjoyable as they are, found themselves presenting Ms Croft as the femme fatale of the discount pile. Given that the PS2 market was very much in its death throes, you could typically pick up any given title for a fiver, even less if a bundle or bulk deal was thrown into the bargain. The sports games, on the other hand, had their own separate box. It wasn’t a shelf. It didn’t need to be a shelf, because you already knew what was in there. Mountains of blue boxes enveloped in plain white, fronts emblazoned with “FIFA two thousand and something” and a couple of smug millionaire footballers trying to look tough, belying hours upon hours of training for dramatic injury simulation. These mountains are kept from flooding onto the shop floor only by the distending walls of the makeshift cardboard frame that houses them, and the glue from previously applied discount stickers that failed to entice my kind into spending £15, nor a tenner, nor a fiver in exchange for relieving the shop of the wastes of space. Punctuating the swathes of football releases lay golf, rugby, wrestling, and American rules football titles, with the occasional tennis or cricket title cropping up. These abominations could barely shift their load at the lofty price of five for £5, such was their instant appeal and subsequent antiquation in spite of the woefully small amount of progress the next title brought to the party of sports titles, new trainers, dirty calendars and cheap beer.

Of course, things weren’t always this way. The likes of football and cricket games were once a flourishing allegory of a blossoming spring. In the early 90s, Sensible Soccer and its follow-up Sensible World Of Soccer, along with other titles at the time, were bringing new tricks into the mix faster than Linford Christie on steroids. Of course, Europe was always football crazy, and the world cup tournament we remember as Italia ’90 fanned the flames fiercely. Such fervent demand didn’t exist for cricket, with Great Britain and Australia the only major computer gaming nations to take the thinking man’s sport seriously at a time when five day test matches were still very much the undisputed pinnacle of the game. A look back into the naturally shallow history of cricket games recalls Graham Gooch’s Test Cricket, a breakthrough in the mid 80s that saw both arcade and simulation modes introduced, and a basic level of playability had been achieved. Unfortunately, that’s as far as it went, and the sluggish development of cricket games continued into the 90s. A couple of sequels later, Graham Gooch’s World Class Cricket was blazing the trail on the home computer front, leaving Ian Botham’s Cricket burning in its wake. By now the platforms had allowed the graphics to look vaguely realistic, there was a wider selection of shots available, and bowling was something of a challenge. The game was woefully sluggish to the point where it was genuinely consistent with test match pace though, and this wouldn’t do if the game of cricket was to see the insides of a games console.

The folks at Beam Software produced International Cricket for the NES in 1992, unrivalled, and it looks like we should be thankful that it was confined to Australia, being garish, noisy, and looking more like a broken copy of Streets Of Rage on a faulty monitor than a cricket match at times. Nevertheless, with competition persisting with absence, Beam again was to create the only cricket game for the next generation.

Super International Cricket does not resemble its predecessor. It’s unrecognisable. Released on the SNES in the places that cared in 1994, you could almost be forgiven for thinking “here we go again” when booting the game up. The menu music loop sounds like it’d be more appropriate for something like Defender than a sports game. Nevertheless, a little exploration of the menu gives you an idea of a little extra control that you have. Once you delve into the teams you can pick your XI, and it’s actually worth rummaging through your squad of 16 for the best skills and best bowling options.

The main menu looks and sounds
all too sinister for me, but things
lighten up further along the way
Mullet Man can bat, and he can
catch, but he's slower than
Tony Christie on steroids
The graphics are a remarkable improvement. Once you get beyond the menu, which had offered little in the way of promise other than fake identification photos for players, you get to see what they’ve done. The player sprites aren’t as articulate as Graham Gooch’s World Class Cricket, but they’re much more properly animated. Where the aforementioned was a very flat view which gave depth perception something of a miss, this is tilted so far down that you barely see the entire wicket as a fast bowler, and judging height becomes more of an issue. Overall, it looks like an actual computer-generated cricket game rather than animated sketches. You could more easily picture Gooch’s endorsement in a 1970s episode of Paddington Bear, although it’s Super International Cricket that features such tomfoolery. The game is underscored with a subtle but very buoyant loop of Caribbean flavour, some of the superimposed images are sillier than others, and at the end, you see the winning team’s mascot. The game has a mildly camp nature to it, but pulls it off quite well. There’s a little match conditions notifier at the coin toss, but I can’t tell if the implied hardness of the ground has an effect on the bounce. The game is a little reduced in speed and comes across as a little bit gritty, but it feels more uniform than the lightning fast strokes that batsmen played on other games.

Silly backwards Australian scoring
confuses the rest of the world
There is a very healthy shot selection on display when it’s your turn to bat. A couple of defensive shots, drives, cuts, slogs, and even leaves are available. The problem is that your control of these shots is somewhat limited, and the strokes are bundled into the four buttons. X covers the defensive, Y covers off-side shots, A has the leg-side shots, and B deal with straight hits. You don’t really get to choose which shot it chooses, it makes a loosely-calculated guess based on where the ball is pitching relative to the batsman’s position and, strangely, on whether or not you made the batsman move position. The shoulder buttons do have somewhat useful functions. The L button makes it easier for the opposing team to catch you out. Unless you feel like you’re in the right spot to hit a six and believe that the computer will play the correct shot, the “add loft” function is something you’d never use. The R button adds more power to your shot, but unless you’re trying to mishit or block for a quick single, you’d never not use this button. Perhaps sacrificing these functions to use the shoulder buttons to give greater control of these shots would have made batting more enjoyable, or maybe even just one shoulder button to change the shot and the other button for some sort of super-slog function. Having said that, trying to play the game as it is without using the shoulder buttons makes the game, particularly batting, criminally boring. Running between the wickets is logical, up and down, but for some reason the batsman running towards the striker’s end doesn’t seem as keen to dive to make his ground as the one heading towards the bowler’s crease, which can prove very annoying at times.

Pre-match report
Post-match report
As a bowler, things are a little more simplistic. You have four types of delivery courtesy of the four action buttons (these change depending on the type of bowler), and four speeds controlled by the shoulder buttons. Looking at that setup on the surface, I’d say they’ve struck a healthy, playable balance. However, because it takes one button to start the run-up and another to commit to the bowling action, it seems like there was an opportunity missed to use two-button combinations, which could be used for sixteen different types of delivery for any given bowler, or, more realistically, four variations of each of the four types of delivery. It’s all very well being able to swing, seam and spin the ball, but how much? There isn't even an option for a fast bowler to bowl in a straight line. Bowling as it is presented is slightly less fun than batting, but certainly more than a functional frustration.

Fielders are best left to
their own devices
The fielding options don’t give you immense freedom to crowd one area of the field, but there is a good degree of versatility, and the interface is very nice and simple, highlighting a given area well, the player’s basic fielding stats and face for recognition, and a giant hand that picks up the puny players by the head and drops them into position at your leisure. Fielding in practice is a lot less joyous. You can choose which end to throw to, knock the stumps over, swap which player you want running for the ball, appeal for a wicket, and make a diving stop. It sounds like a tidy package. However, the fielders never do anything intelligent once you gain control of them. They’re allowed to run maybe 50% faster, but won’t just pick up the ball. Instead, you have to make a diving stop. The fielders never dive in the right direction, and you have to do it so the outstretched hand lands on the ball, or else move your fielder into the path of the ball well in advance if you can, and then let it stop it by itself. A potentially great feature is ruined.

A good turn of speed can
avoid an embarrassing run-out
The field setting is nice and
easy to use
The AI is, of course, limited. This is a Super Nintendo, after all. As a bowler, you can bowl a specific line that narrows the batsman’s reasonable shot selection, and bundle eight or nine fielders into a limited arc, and bowl even the toughest side out for under twenty runs. It’s a little bit trickier as a batsman if you want to play properly, but as you can see where the ball is pitching in advance, you can move your batsman into the correct position to play whatever shot suits you. Otherwise it’s down to tricking the fielders into mistakes to pinch extra runs. The stat that makes the biggest difference in this game is speed. A batsman could have the best stats in the team, but if he’s very slow between the wickets (the best batsman usually is in this game), you will hate him. There are two extremely fast reserve batsmen in the Australian squad, so you could pick them as the opening pair and grind out singles if you cared more about winning than having fun. Even without doing that, you’ll appreciate the decreased run-out risk. When trying to fill a given spot in the side to a batsman or bowler, speed is your primary reference. On top of everything else, it helps an awful lot in the field, and is still a good benefit when playing against a human, which, as usual with sports games, is by far the superior way to enjoy the game.

A swing and a miss, perhaps...
...but the boundaries were pushed
It’s easy to dismiss Super International Cricket, and in terms of playing it today, that’s a fair call. After all, not too far into the next year we saw the release of Konami’s International Superstar Soccer, which still plays pretty well, is a lot of fun, and looks good, and this hasn’t held up anything like as well. However, to dismiss the game in terms of the development of cricket’s representation in the industry is another matter. When compared to International Cricket, the follow-up really is “super”, and was good enough to enforce a follow-on. Beam Software and other companies ensured that cricket games would be improved for both home computers and consoles. Cricket 96 and Cricket 97 were big improvements, most notably in playability, offering a much more agreeable level of control. It just so happens that these two titles were published by a certain Electronic Arts.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Space Invasion II / Dodge Em / Galaxy Wars / The Amazing Adventures Of Harry Haddock (1995/Amiga)

Whilst I recall taking a greater interest in Amiga Format in my youth than Amiga Power, Amiga Action, and CU Amiga, one of the best-remembered Amiga magazines I had was a copy of Amiga Action. I was more interested in games than articles, and Issue 69 provided a great “Comic Relief Bonanza” in 1995, with no less than four floppy disks supplied. There was a demo of Turbo Trax, a demo of The Speris Legacy which I have to admit to never touching (even from a young age I’ve never been much for those RPG thingies), and a full version of the annoying but tuneful platformer The Blues Brothers as the comic relief fundraiser. All very exciting, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Who needs flashy menu screens?
Space Invasion II
Remind you of anything?
Disk 2 was what stayed with me, however. On this disk was a collection of four simple public domain games from Kevin Gallagher and his Towerbyte Software crew in Grimsby. Gallagher did some arcade game adaptations with AMOS for the Amiga, and the first of these to appear here was Space Invasion II, a much-improved, and no less cunningly disguised, conversion of the classic Space Invaders. While the original had been quite crude, this version introduces bases, and brings back Towerbyte’s favourite “in space but on the ground” background in more detail. There’s not much you can say about the gameplay, other than that it’s a realistic Space Invaders experience, save for the background. A third version in 1998 would see the black background employed with smoother movement, but where the original conversion was lacking, this was the version that essentially matched up in terms of gameplay. Evidence that some of these games were rushed is only evident in the menu here. The surprisingly long music clip (the length of the title music of the games appears to be what takes up so much of the space on the disk that decreed that there wasn’t enough room for a proper title screen for selecting the games) pumps ominously over scrolling text filled with mistakes like “scoreing” and “lazer”. I accept that some acronyms such as radar have been assimilated into the language as words in their own right, but the letters still stand for something, and “ztimulated” isn’t part of it.

Dodge Em
Dodge Em is the second game on the disk, and it’s a charming little action/puzzle where you have to navigate a “coarse” in your car collecting dots (akin to Pac-Man) whilst avoiding the evil “on-comeing” cars travelling in the opposite direction that try to crash into you and take one of your three lives (not shown). As well as more typographical errors, which I’ll avoid commenting on from now on, Dodge Em stands out for having a very limited canon of sounds. An effect for moving around the menu and picking up dots, an effect for changing lanes (tyre squealing), and an effect for crashing (kicking a metal dustbin) are all there are in this game, giving it a real barebones effect. Enemy cars get faster and more numerous as you beat levels to give an appropriate challenge, and you need to be a smooth operator to beat level 4.

Galaxy Wars
I've seen that background before
The third game on this disk sees us move from arcade-influenced gaming back into the territory of direct conversion, and Galaxy Wars isn’t even disguised with a name tweak. Certainly less famous than the Space Invaders franchise, Gallagher again gives a largely faithful conversion. Your white tracker shifts your white rocket missile that you need to guide through the white whizzing meteorite asteroid rock things to hit the white space saucers that are trying to drop zigzag-shaped bombs on you so you can take them out, score points, and beat that level, and get a high score with your three lives. If not for another very long piece of menu music and another iteration of the stock space/terrain background, you wouldn’t notice much difference at all. As with Space Invasion II, Galaxy Wars is another successfully addictive arcade conversion.

The Amazing Adventures
Of Harry Haddock
Harry's a real fish out of water,
with an irresponsible diet
Level 2 (of 2) takes place at night
The fourth and final game in this collection sticks out like a sore thumb for so many reasons. The Amazing Adventures Of Harry Haddock (labelled as Harry The Haddock on the disk sticker, presumably to save space) is not an arcade conversion or even as directly influenced by a classic arcade title as Dodge Em is. It’s a pure platformer that’s wrong on so, so many levels that it qualifies as pure madness. You load the game up, and once you’re there, you’re treated to an Amiga style instrumentation of the Baywatch theme tune. As if that wasn’t bad enough, while a piece of example level scrolls left and right, you get a face full of the titular character, with his lifeguard shorts, eyes that stick out the top of his head, enough bright red lipstick for the entire Baywatch cast, and a giant surfboard (not seen in game). So you press fire as soon as you can to get rid of this garish experience, and things get dark. The loading screen features another giant-sized image of Harry posing with a floppy disk. He seems to be wearing sunglasses that are apparently the colour of haddock hide, which is a bit weird. Then, when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, you hear the background music for the game itself. It’s another Amiga style instrumental, this time of Whigfield’s late 1994 hit “Saturday Night”, cementing the game’s musical score as not only a musical time capsule of sorts, but possibly the worst of all time.

Look at his skin, look at the shades
Once you’ve recovered from that shock, you need to play quickly. Harry has a time limit for completing a level, of which there are a whopping two. To score points, you need to collect all sorts of junk from multicoloured diamonds, stars and coins to presumably edible items such as burgers, cake, coke and canned apple juice, all of which come with various sparkling, swallowing or slurping sounds. You need to jump Harry across the level, and his rapid spring up and slow float down are an unusual quirk that needs a little getting used to. Harry can move so fast that he can’t walk down a downward slope, he just floats over the top, one of a few signs that the game was rushed. Most platforms are solid lumps, but you do get a couple of mobile ones and disappearing ones to keep the interest up. The main hazards are the birds, crabs and occasional octopus that move around a platform typically minding their own business, but are deadly enough to kill Harry upon contact. The other enemies are time (you lose the whole game if you run out of time, no life-losing mechanic here) and, bizarrely, water. Harry, a haddock, a fish, needs to stay out of water to stay alive. I accept that anything else would warp the idea of a platformer somewhat, but this makes absolutely no sense. The gameplay, like your typical Towerbyte game, is simplistic but lasting, and this playable game with all of its horrendous features makes it a shining example of the “classic for all the wrong reasons” category, which most prominently features Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker.

This little disk is far from perfect, but it is special. It brought arcade gameplay into the home in a spectacularly low budget fashion, and provided a huge amount of time-killing potential. Especially armed with a joystick, Space Invasion II and Galaxy Wars offer similar but acceptably different bona fide arcade experiences, and are a pleasure. Dodge Em has a slightly shorter shelf-life, but is an interesting spin on an all time classic. The Amazing Adventures Of Harry Haddock is, well, amazing. It’s wacky, it’s fun, it’s crazy, it’s outrageous, and by the time you’ve shaken yourself out of the mind-crippling shock that the sheer idiocy it throws at you, you’re already hooked. Even in a gaming age where not so many titles could be accused of glossing over substantial gaming in favour of neat graphics and sounds, Towerbyte Software demonstrated that if you gave them nothing more than a little beer money, they could give you hours of fun, but not in that way.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Slam Tilt (1996/Amiga)

Liquid Dezign was a group that was born from the Digital Illusions group that made pinball games in the early 90s. That brand had punched out the first of 21st Century Entertainment’s series of pinball games. 1992’s Pinball Dreams was a great little number for the time, but looked dated, flat, gaudy and simplistic after only a few years, with one of the four tables featuring a music chart theme that beggars belief. Later in the same year came Pinball Fantasies, also with four tables, which played and looked about the same, unsurprisingly. Pinball Illusions came along in 1995 and brushed up the graphics a bit, but 21st Century decided to call on Spidersoft to produce Pinball Mania in the same, which was diabolical.

At this point, pinball madness had almost run its course. The same tables began appearing in multi-pack compilation after compilation and saw a lot of porting. 1996’s Slam Tilt stands out as the last memorable standalone pinball game of the time. The PC port a year later featured different menu screens but was very much the same game. Sure enough, its four tables would go on to be lumped in with compilations just like the rest of them. As a package, it really stands out. From the icy metal patterned box to the audio, graphics and gameplay, Slam Tilt puts the works of Digital Illusions to shame. Supposedly the last first-release to get a review published in an issue of the Amiga Power magazine that scored 90% or better, it was put out into an Amiga scene in its death throes, Commodore having declared bankruptcy years earlier. Nevertheless, it’s a polished effort that deserved to be ported to the PC.

The sound is very crisp and clear, with a lot of urgent twists to the music when you’re on specific tasks. There was no overhaul in the sound department on the port, and it’s not hard to see why. The game makes the audio of the Digital Illusions titles sound like cheap one armed bandit machine noises that you find in tacky arcades and Sonic The Hedgehog games. I half expected Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to be playing faintly in the background with Pinball Dreams. Why is “Thriller” the same song that gets stuck on in a permanent loop in those places anyway? As a man perpetually stuck in the past, even I find these outdated tips uncomfortably obsolete.

The bold claim on the box that Slam
 is "The Pinball Game" is just a
description, and they like to remind
you of what you're about to play
The menu screen is a little bland,
but that's the biggest complaint
you'll have about the game, and it
was changed for the PC port
The graphics are something else. So it’s 2D, who cares? The 3D games don’t fare any better, and the camera panning and zooming here is spot on. Rather than focusing all their attention on creating the shiniest ball you’ve ever seen (I can almost see my reflection in the balls used in Pinball Illusions), they work on everything else. The rails and ramps look better, the backboards are painted in well, and the flashing lights have great shading. Then there’s the faux-LCD display at the top. Sure, it tells you your score and how many balls you’ve used, but there’s much more to it. Animations from the amusing to the creepy punctuate the game modes just as well as the sound does, and there’s even a minigame or two on each table where you go interactive with it.

The LCD screen plays host to fun
little side games like "throw knives
at silhouettes armed with cannons"
The gameplay is simple (it’s pinball, after all) but sickeningly addictive. The ball zips around at a good rate, never trapped for too long. The targets aren’t especially challenging to hit, so you always feel like you’re ready to amass a heavy score once you’ve either sussed the table out or read the manual. You’re more prone to losing the ball down the middle or down the side lanes than in other games, so you often find yourself thwarted and driven to have another go. It’s a frustrating way to get addicted to a game, but it really works. The lights are clear indicators of where to shoot, so picking up what you have to do is pretty easy. On the rare occasion that you get a minigame that enables the video, it’s either so self-explanatory that it requires no thought (shoot the thing with this moving reticle) or instructions flash up if more than one button is required (flippers to steer, launch to shoot, or flippers to button-mash). I wouldn’t say it adds a whole other dimension, but this is a good thing, and these games are fun little sideshows rather than making Slam Tilt something other than a pinball experience.

Mean Machines - a nice easy start
The four tables that are featured are largely excellent. “Mean Machines” will likely be the one that you play first. It’s first on the list and the easiest to put down a big score on. It’s a good table, but arguably the weakest. It looks overcrowded, has a weird “overheat” function which doesn’t do anything but annoy you, and is probably the most regurgitated theme in pinball computer game history. With the bad points out of the way, its numerous positives include its easiness as a beginner table, vast ramps, a third flipper with more than one option available, and the same benefits that every table here has: amusing twists on the theme (chicken races, stock car smash ups), lots of different modes to unlock, and fast and exciting gameplay.

The Pirate - a fine yarrrdstick for all
computer pinball games to compare to
The second table, “The Pirate” is the only table that really differs from the standard in terms of themes (cars, space and spookiness are all common tender), and offers something different to the other tables as well. Rather than losing a top corner to “fill the three flashing lights to get a bonus upgrade”, it has a funky “magna table” random bonus box thingy, and a much greater emphasis is placed on multiball games. Multiball is a function on every table, but it’s at its best here, and while the music on this table is particularly good, nothing beats the hilarious background music for the “Crocedile” [sic] multiball. The modes are fun, the table is a little more challenging, and it isn’t too crowded, so there’s plenty of room for a giant compass and a cave thingy. The table runs smooth as silk, and is my personal pick.

Ace Of Space - right up there
with the best of them
A close runner up is “Ace Of Space”, which runs a little slower, but makes up for it with some of the best game modes out there. From the predictable “Space Race” to the interactive “Death Planet” (the best video minigame on offer) to the ridiculous “Blam” (shooting ramps to destroy random targets such as a UFO, space station, a banana, the monkey from “The Pirate”, a space cow… wait, what?), there’s a full range of shenanigans for everyone. It’s well packed without being cluttered, and if it wasn’t for the slightly slower pace and the pointless zigzag in that left hand rail that shouldn’t exist, this would be a very serious challenger to “The Pirate”.

Night Of The Demon - this table
is horrifically hard to dominate
The final table is the much tougher “Night Of The Demon”. The ramps are harder to shoot, and it’s noticeably sparse. While it’s slightly less playable than the other tables, the twisted and silly humour prevalent in the other tables comes into full bloom beneath the creepy veneer of this morbid theme. The relative lack of modes and options (the only table without a third flipper is the one that could really have used one along with a couple of extra ramps) do make this table suffer compared to the last two, but its difficulty does appeal to the more hardened pinball veteran.

The multiball feature can get a
bit overwhelming at these speeds
The camera pans well, so you
always know what's going on
It’s not big and it’s not clever, but Slam Tilt hits the sweet spot. Not overambitious on the number of tables, the Liquid Dezign crew from Sweden put a lot of work into the industry standard of four tables, and the results are great. Decades on, the game doesn’t look remotely dated, and if you can play it, it’s as good as any modern pinball game out there. Colourful and intense, you don’t find yourself sitting around for too long waiting for your balls to drop. Even the high scores present good, challenging strata. Without setting yourself harsh restrictions, Slam Tilt will decimate your free time.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Beneath A Steel Sky (1994/Amiga/PC)

One of the more exotic gaming journeys back into the 90s was to indulge in a point-and-click adventure that wasn’t a LucasArts project, but one that could stand tall against just about any of them. One well-recognised game that matches these criteria is found in the trip back to early 1994, with the destination being an uncomfortable chair in front of a DOS machine with Beneath A Steel Sky ready to play. I first experienced this game as a youngster on the Amiga, but revisiting and playing through the PC “talkie” version brought extra life to the set. The CD-ROM is also slightly harder to use as a murder weapon than the Amiga’s colossal fifteen floppy disks, which resemble a hefty brickbat when taped together and wrapped in something brickbat-coloured, or fifteen highly customised shurikens.

It’s not without its flaws, the most notable being the ill-fitting American accents of Foster and a minority of the cast, and indeed the entire cast bar Eduardo the gardener if you consider that the game is played in Australia, with the rest of the cast displaying a broad array of British accents, among others. Still, the cockneys are close enough. The voice acting has the right amount of ham to blend in with the dialogue to bring humorous overtones to a conceptually sinister game, similar in theory but not in practice to the cream of LucasArts’ contributions to the genre. The background music is typically supplementary, and the moods usually complement the intended atmospheres, but it is a little bit too cheery at times. The Virtual Theatre engine propels non-playable characters around the world, but the need to avoid them at times and to be moved to a particular place on the screen to have a conversation can be grating.

You play Robert Foster. He's stylish...
...an effortless womaniser...
...has a refined taste in music...
...and is quite the athlete, to boot!
The characters are typically very identifiable despite not having discernable faces. This is largely due to the scope of accents deployed, and while it’s something you wince at upon the realisation that you’re getting a vocal tour of the British Isles (London, Birmingham, Cardiff, Belfast, Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh are all covered, although 1994 was long before non-footballers from Newcastle were allowed to become celebrities on a regular basis, and the treaty that controversially decreed that Geordie was technically a dialect of English only came into force a decade later), you do start to appreciate the necessity of this as you get further into the game. The primary layer of characters is quite distinctive, with the free outsider Foster, the zealous Reich, the archaic Lamb, the rebellious Anita, and the caustic mechanoid Joey. There are a lot of characters, however, that fit into the oblivious, selfish stereotype, but you still manage to maintain a mental image of them through their often unique voice, which is never subtle but not always a caricature. The French doorman’s accent is a little forced, but it’s more David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot than Peter Sellers’ Jacques Clouseau, so we’re not treated to the sheer mockery of the tongue seen in Jackie Chan Stuntmaster and other games. On the other hand, the Welsh security guard is practically drowning in saliva as he stumbles through lines like “We’re here to serve the community, and shoot people” (which, despite being epitomic of Beneath A Steel Sky, is far too easily missed), and Sam and Norville in the security centre are so brummie that they make Jasper Carrott sound like a foreign national.

Joey is always complaining...
...and Hobbins can see why...
...but that's what upgrades are for
The nagging issue that the characters don’t always stick to the written script is largely the cause of dialect, and this is in evidence as the American Foster meanders loosely around a very colloquial British script, with “jumper”, “it’s well smart”, and “they’re shagged beyond repair” changed to “sweater”, “it’s totally cool”, and “they’re frazzed beyond repair”. You can feel the defiance in the voice actor in the last of those lines. “‘Shagged’? Don’t be ridiculous, frazzed makes much more sense,” he says to himself. He’s wrong, though.

The most intensive the interface
gets, and it's telling you why
Hobbins is in such poor shape
Being point-and-click, it’s hard to complain about the controls. You click either mouse button to walk somewhere, talk to someone, or follow an exit cursor, and you left-click to examine a highlighted object, right-click to pick up or interact with it, and right-click anywhere to skip a line of text. Just one keyboard button is required, to bring up the menu. The interface is dead simple. The unobtrusive inventory only drops down if you move the cursor to the very top, and the only thing that changes when looking at objects is the cursor, which changes from a smaller arrow to a larger one labelled “Exit” for a route out of the room, or to a crosshairs with the name of the object or person, which even changes as the player learns the character’s name. It’s all minimal and effective, and allows you to enjoy the graphics.

Stunning graphics are featured...
...from the barren to the exotic
And what graphics they are. The background art supplied by illustrious comic book artist Dave Gibbons is painted to a half-realism rather than his comic style, although he does provide a comic strip too for the introduction in the packaging, which was featured at the beginning of the game itself on CD-ROM. From the bleak industrial towers to the plush modern veneers, the artwork is something to be savoured, and you can easily appreciate the effort that the Revolution team put into giving it centre stage. You even have the option to remove speech text from view if you’re feeling cocky about hearing everything first time, but do bear in mind that you don’t get to repeat conversations.

Lifts make transportation easy
Despite the sprawling city and plot, the navigable world is pretty small. Multiply that with the ability to change your game speeds, and you’ve got a much more easily accessible world than say, The Secret Of Monkey Island, a comparably epic world that takes about four decades to explore.

Right from the almost-animated cartoon strip intro, the scavengers that act as the guardians of Robert Foster paint an ill landscape erupting into the sky, and the protagonist’s life summary illustrates the relative wasteland. Another helicopter crash brings Foster, now regarded as a fugitive, to the start of the gameplay. Unlike a fair chunk of its peers, Beneath A Steel Sky presents several situations where our protagonist can die, and the ability to save is most welcome. Points of timing also come up, and the ability to slow the game speed down can prove to be quite nifty at times.

Foster gets backed up against a
wall straight away, and can die here...
...good thing he's so eloquent and
can blag his way out of trouble
You’re instantly put in a situation where Foster can be killed. Walking down the stairs results in instant termination courtesy of the purple clad guard. A simple puzzle leads to a very dead end, but Foster manages to outwit the goon without your help. As the guard leaves the building, your next step is to find a shell for Joey, who can then analyse your items, mend things, break things, fly, complain, and insult you. After convincing the hapless Howard Hobbins that he’s a safety inspector, which becomes his recurring disguise, he steals his stuff and slides down into the recycling plant’s furnace room. Upon attempting to escape the room, gun-toting security officer Stephen Reich (who was in charge of abducting Foster in the intro) bursts in, pointing his weapon at Foster, who as it turns out, is Robert Overmann, but he’s still Foster to us. Some spy camera linked to a system called LINC toasts Reich, and the pun-toting fugitive is becoming aware that someone or something is looking out his survival.

Foster's incisive humour is nothing
short of irresistable...
...he's smooth like ice, but Lamb is
cold to the touch and isn't very nice

Dystopian fashion is questionable,
and yet Foster's coat is ridiculed
The supporting caste bears the
brunt of swingeing cuts
Having looted Reich’s corpse, Foster can access most of the industrial area available to him after this point, waving his imaginary inspector credentials around like a feather duster to any guards and technicians that he chooses to talk to. There are computer terminals that he can use his newfound card on, through which he eventually discovers that this LINC thing had his mother killed. In the pipe factory, Foster meets the suffering rogue Anita Einbeck, who is sympathetic to Foster’s plight, and her oppressive, ostentatious supervisor Gilbert Lamb, who is implied to be some sort of inept hack. After trying to flirt with Anita, discovering that he’s in Union City (Sydney, apparently), learning that this city is a supposed corporation which is at economic war with Hobart (another city/corporation that isn’t renamed), and sabotaging the power plant, Foster fixes the lift and gains access to Belle Vue, home to a couple of characters, and several strange businesses.

Suddenly, you're in what feels
like a different world
Belle Vue isn't paradise, but it
sure beats London
The strange but admittedly not counterintuitive concept of being closer to the ground giving you higher status that Foster had picked up on is in full view here. The rusting housing of industry gives way to stone facades and plant life. Belle Vue isn’t brilliantly lush, but it’s such a stark contrast, particularly outside the conveniently adjacent living quarters of Reich and Lamb, where you can talk to a strange chap called Gallagher, who thinks he’s… William Shatner. Foster can visit the travel agency, insurance company, and the obligatory mad scientist Doctor Burke, replete with a curious German accent and a habit of inhaling anaesthetic whilst cutting up patients, who provides Foster with an electronic port in his head (not shown). Foster can then access LINC (“LINCspace”), which is like some bizarre virtual reality world with a set of puzzles.

LINCspace is like stepping
into another game
With enough trickery and help from Anita, Foster gets to Hyde Park at ground level, and manages to get some answers from Danielle Piermont, whose deceased husband’s work led the pair of them to be close to the Overmann family. The frightening Piermont is incredibly wealthy and well connected, and can get you access to an underground club, and her dog Spunky can be used to create a good distraction for one Officer Blunt, who is basically Parker from Thunderbirds, who ‘as no h’idea what h’exactly you’re h’up to. After entering a truly bizarre courthouse scene in which a dated judge presides over his court as if it were a game show, Hobbins hastily befriends Foster after standing accused of assaulting Blunt with some water spray, which was an unseen result of Foster’s work in the power plant.

Very good, m'lady:
h'Officer Blunt h'is 'opeless
Here's your starter for ten:
Judge Chutney hosts a sham court
Doctor Burke is definitely
on something
After discovering Anita’s radiation-cooked body in the cathedral, an increasingly vengeful Foster vows to finish what Anita was planning, and destroy LINC. He sneaks into the underground to find some of the strangest things imaginable in the circumstances. LINC is a pulsating organism hooked up to Foster’s dad, and some guy with a surfer dude voice is totally growing rubbery androids. Joey, whose job is to annoy you and keep breaking shells, has his last one broken after an altercation with the mysterious Gallagher, who turns out to be... another android, and Foster downloads him into an android and dubs him Ken. A few more puzzles and sharp thinking leads to Foster meeting his father, and then on to victory. Fast forward a little spring cleaning, and everything's fantastic, so Foster declares his return to the gap, despite all of his tribe having been exterminated in the explosion courtesy of Reich’s entourage in the introduction, leaving Ken and Hobbins behind. The fate of the rest of the surviving citizens of the implied nicer, uncorrupted Union City is left open, apart from Lamb, who is suggested to get a return to work in a less prestigious position. End game, roll credits, “be vigilant”, whoopee.

Things get weirder by the minute
Some of the puzzles are easier than others. Along with the threat of death that isn’t always obvious, some puzzles are abstractly different to others, which keeps you on your toes at all times. While many hallmarks of adventure games are there, such as the initial level acting as a silent tutorial that equates to “use that metal thing to open that metal door or get shot”, and the increasing complexity, moving around LINCspace makes you feel like you’re playing a different game.

The plot is heartwrenchingly good
Beneath A Steel Sky is a killer game
Dizzying heights were achieved
in the creation of this game
The game is completely gripping, and while a huge part of it is because of the amazing art, challenging gameplay and intriguing plot, a fair chunk is down to uncomfortable juxtapositions. From the way LINCspace feels compared to the tangible walkways, and how oddly cheery Belle Vue and Hyde Park are compared to the rest of the world, to the strange hodgepodge of current and dated technology that the dystopia setting allows for, and the strands of humour woven into such a serious tapestry, you're always wanting to play more just to achieve a greater sense of clarity. While The Secret Of Monkey Island and LeChuck’s Revenge were conceived from a grim idea that was crafted to be brimming with charm, the use of humour in Beneath A Steel Sky added a dimension to the game rather than just changing it to a different type. By straddling the borders of multiple concepts rather than firmly establishing the game as something distinct, the folks at Revolution risked a game that would fall flat and not achieve in any category. However, they put the work in, and served up something that, while not quite perfect, overachieved in many ways. Beneath A Steel Sky is one of the pinnacles of the genre, and its release to the freeware world in 2003 and inexpensive remastered release as a sort of iApp thingy in 2009 by the company, which was a demonstration that they understood the emulator scene and disaffected consumers better than the bigger players, have helped to keep the flame of adventure games alive. It is inspiring gamers to dig back into the past and indulge in the classic games, and encouraging developers to dedicate their time to creating games for the so-called unfashionable genre. Its place as both a quality game and a historically significant package are in no doubt.