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The Top 50: #30-26

#30 – Mercenary 2: Damocles

Released: 1990
Developer: Paul Woakes
Publisher: Novagen Software
Genre: Err… Cataclysm prevention simulator

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Sandbox games are ten-a-penny these days, and games are readily lambasted for being linear if they don’t offer a gamer choices, different ways to accomplish goals, or freedom to explore. But in 1990 Damocles offered an entire star system of nine planets in which you could fly from one planet to another, enter its atmosphere and zoom over continents and seas looking for cities, fly down to a city, land at an airport (or crash onto a patch of grass, if your piloting skills are akin to mine) and walk about on foot, or drive a car to buildings which could be entered and explored, items looted or bought.

If I said that Damocles world was incredibly rich, I’d be telling a porky pie. There are no people (or NPCs of any kind) around at all (handily explained away by the plot, which I will come to later) and many of the cities and buildings are obviously procedurally generated and completely baron of any interest. Even so, this game world was truly breathtaking when first encountered.

Part of said game world is currently under serious threat from the appropriately named comet, Damocles, which is on a collision course with the densely populated ‘M’ class planet Eris. Obviously, many people have a vested interest in Eris’ survival, and should you succeed in preventing its destruction you will become unimaginably rich. In line with the game’s open-ended gameplay, this can be achieved in many different ways.

The old Mercenary engine (this game’s predecessor) has received a complete overhaul, and now features filled vector graphics moving along at a nice pace – only slowing when a lot of detail is on screen. While planet side you will witness the passage of time, sunrises, sunsets, and moons will orbit the planet, all adding to the atmosphere.

I’m not sure it’s possible on current hardware, but the prospect of a remake of this game on modern technology would blow my mind. I wonder what Paul Woakes is up to these days?

#29 – Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe

Released: 1990
Developer: Bitmap Brothers
Publisher: Image Works
Genre: Future sport sim

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The original Speedball introduced us to the eponymous uber-violent steel-clad sport, and the sequel picks up the very same ball and runs with it. And runs. And runs some more. Then kicks someone in the face, and runs a little further.

Superficially very similar to its prequel, Speedball 2 has the same metallic sheen and the aim is still to score goals while staving your opponent’s heads in. However, there are a number of improvements. Speedball 2 is one of those rare beasts: a sequel that improves upon the original in almost every way: the pitch is larger, with more features, like the multiplier loop, stars, golden ball nodes (which make the ball a lethal weapon) and more power-ups; each team has more players; League and Cup modes feature a roster of players which you can train and others you can buy; League mode has two divisions, making promotion a possibility (though strangely relegation is simply game over); and best of all, you can actually send your opponents players to hospital. Nothing beats seeing your rival’s star forward (who he has just spent thousands of credits on) crying in a bloody and broken mess on the floor as two med-bots scrape his remains off the floor and cart him off.

I usually try and find a fault here in order to give at least an illusion of balance or objectivism, but I’m really struggling. Oh, I’ve got one! There is a bit of a difficulty spike when jumping from division 2 to division 1. That’s it… Sorry.

Such is the brilliance of this title; a friend of mine refers to the ST as ‘The Speedball Machine’ and – much to my chagrin – refuses to call it anything else, often offering to superglue the disk in the drive for me. “Why does the machine even have an eject button?” he would quip. Git.

#28 – Populous

Released: 1989
Developer: Bullfrog
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: Strategy

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Say what you like about Peter Molyneux and his hyperbole, he is a video game visionary and has been striving to create something unique and ground-breaking his whole career. Sometimes he has stalled (though still a great game, Fable disappointed many), sometimes he has come within a hairs-breadth (Black and White broke ground with compelling gameplay mechanics and fascinating user interface, but actually wasn’t that much fun) and every now and again, hit the nail square on the bonce.

Populous was a revelation (no pun intended) when it was released in 1989. Not the first God game by quite some distance (Intellivision’s Utopia predates it by seven years) but certainly the game that gave the genre a boot up the proverbial and made people sit up and take notice.

Evolved from an isometric terrain editor that Molyneux had been playing with where you could raise and lower the turf (the simplest divine power in the finished game), the game sees you take control of a god who cannot issue direct commands to his subjects, but must influence his civilisation through other means: levelling land to enable the folks to build homes, placing religious artefacts to encourage their movement to other areas, and helping your little fellas get along in life by sticking the boot into their enemies.

The godly powers are ingeniously wicked in design and can be used in devious combinations to bamboozle unwary opponents: earthquakes, swamps and volcanoes are all predictably destructive, and you can ordain knights who fight extremely dirty, burning all in their path. Floods are great, providing you have built your own land high enough. Can’t be bothered to play a level to its natural conclusion (the destruction of one of the two races) then a good Old Testament style Armageddon is what you need to sort the men from the boys (interestingly, Molyneux envisions the end of the world to be a massive football hooligan style brawl).

Populous has a solidity of design and execution rarely seen in games from any era. Its magnificence is evident from the first moments of the first game. It just wills you to keep playing. I introduced this game to a ten year old last month, and he is addicted already, shunning his previous favourites Rome: Total War and Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2. And I haven’t even touched upon its multiplayer mode.

#27 – Falcon

Released: 1987
Developer: Sphere Inc.
Publisher: Spectrum Holobyte
Genre: Flight Simulator

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Falcon is no pick up and play arcade blaster, as a peek at the huge manual and extensive keyboard overlay will tell you. When it was released in 1987, Falcon was heralded for its realism and smooth filled vector graphics.

Falcon also featured modem play so you could dogfight with a friend who owned any version: Mac, PC, or Amiga. If you were lucky enough to own 1 meg of memory, you could open up the black box after a failed mission to see where you went wrong.

If you’re a flight sim virgin (ahem, like me) you can adjust the difficulty by choosing your rank. Lowly Lieutenants give you infinite ammo, and makes you indestructible, so it’s just a matter of pointing the plane in the right direction and away you go. Colonel is a different barrel of fish altogether, you will encounter realistic flying conditions and enemy planes will chew you up like a pack of juicy fruit. Sphere boasted at the time that the enemy plane’s AI was based on real Soviet fighter manoeuvres.

Originally supplied with 12 missions, 2 expansion packs were also made available featuring more missions, planes and scenery.

#26 – Gauntlet 2

Released: 1989
Developer: Domark
Publisher: US Gold
Genre: Shoot-em-up

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Gauntlet on the Spectrum was my first taste of cooperative multiplayer gaming, and from my first ghost slaying I was hooked. Gauntlet, Bubble Bobble, Streets Of Rage 2, Guardian Heroes, Rainbow Six, Halo: co-op gaming has provided me with some of the most enjoyable moments (and through-the-night marathons) of my on-going gaming career.

Gauntlet is the definitive top-down dungeon crawling hack’n’slash (though really a shoot-em-up), so what does its sequel offer? Dragons, that’s what… double bastard-hard ones, too. All players (up to four – a bit of an ST rarity) can choose who they control, so no more squabbling over the Valkyrie, and there is a greater variety of dungeon, with some new pickups and monsters (my personal favourite is the ‘It’ monster – whoever it touches is it and all enemies swarm to him like Retro Fusion attendees to the bar).

The XBox Live version of Gauntlet does not hand out continues like the Ice cream man handed out bubblies, instead opting for a ‘if you die, that’s it’ approach which is rather hardcore (read ‘horribly unfair’) but does add tension and a challenge, the home versions could have done with at least an incentive to hold on to your health – but then, there is always the scoreboard.

One might say that unlimited continues would diminish the enjoyment/challenge of any Gauntlet game, but we never noticed: we were always looking forward to the next dungeon. “Will there be a dragon?” “Don’t be selfish, I want some potions too.” “Why did you shoot the food again, you Joey?” And so on. The game was so much fun we weren’t worried about the challenge, or how the game would end.

“That was a heroic effort.”

To the deeper dungeons (#25-21) ->

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