The Ryan Lambie Column: The great drunken retro game marathon

Ryan and his better half indulge in a spot of 8-bit nostalgia - let the blocky pixels fly, and the 1980s rule...

Mr Ryan Lambie's amazing joypad.

It’s all very well having dozens of consoles and hundreds of games (as I have, crammed into my spare room and huddled around a dusty old Grundig television), but all that getting up from your chair to change cartridges or discs every half hour or so can become irksome and rather tiring after the seventh or eighth bottle of beer, as can the constant unwrapping of tangled controller wires and switching between AV and UHF channels.

Thank the Lord, then, for compilations like Taito Legends: huge collections of twenty or so games from yesteryear, all crammed on one disc. The ability to switch from one game to the next with a press of a button – all without moving from the sofa – is a revelation, and not simply due to old-fashioned laziness: the rapid switching between games has given me a new pastime – the drunken retro game marathon.

Not only are these enormous fun, but they’ve also become a handy, if rather protracted, method of resolving disagreements between me and my long suffering better half, Sarah. The other day, for example, we had trouble deciding whose turn it was to pay for the next day’s cinema tickets. The solution to the argument was simple: let the retro games decide.

The rules are these: starting with the first game on the disc (chronologically or alphabetically), each player has one attempt to gain the highest score. Whoever gets the highest score wins a point. Once a point is scored, it’s on to the next game on the list.

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(The alcohol has very little to do with the rules of the game, though it does pass the time nicely while your opponent has their go. Sarah maintains that my heckling from the sixth game onwards became rather insistent and put her off, but I think that’s an excuse.)

On this occasion, we opted for Taito Legends 2, a second collection of games that Taito forgot to put on their original compilation. And while the first collection featured the most household retro game names (the original Space Invaders, Bubble Bobble or New Zealand Story, for example), part two boasts a few gems of its own, including the superlative – and surprisingly violent – Elevator Action Returns, the Sega Saturn version of which changes hands for ridiculous sums on eBay.

Our collection chosen, we began to play through the games, beginning with the oldest first. And here’s what we played:

Lunar Rescue (1979)

A kind of Frogger and Space Invaders hybrid, you control a tiny landing module as it descends moonward. Lines of aliens float left and right, which you must deftly avoid to pick up the stranded astronauts on the moon’s surface. Once you’ve rescued one, the game switches to a shooting game for the ascent, as you blast your way through the enemies to dock with your mothership. Quaint, and curiously addictive.

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Score: Ryan 0, Sarah 1

Balloon Bomber (1980)

It should be pointed out here that we’d never played many of these early games before, so trying to figure out the controls and objectives in one measly go became something of a challenge in itself.

While apparently a straightforward shooter (blast the balloons that float by without hitting the swinging bombs tied to their undercarriage), Balloon Bomber hides a sting in its tail that isn’t immediately obvious – should you allow a bomb to hit the ground, it renders the area impassable for your little blue tank, a point which completely passed me by until my tank became trapped and helpless in the corner of the screen. Sarah quietly noted the error and beat me by a considerable margin.

Score: Ryan 0, Sarah 2

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Crazy Balloon (1980)

After suffering a humiliating defeat in the last bout, I introduced a new rule: each player has to take turns to go first. This meant I got to see how Crazy Balloon was played before I had a go myself, which, after a little booze, seemed rather cunning.

Continuing Taito’s slightly creepy eighties obsession with balloons, Crazy Balloon looked like simplicity itself: guide the gasbag round the spiky maze. My initial smugness proved short lived, with my balloon left impaled on spikes and my score pitifully low.

Score: Ryan 0, Sarah 3

Qix (1981)

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‘Oh God, not Qix‘ I moaned when the title screen rolled into view. ‘I hate this game – can’t we skip it?’

‘Rules are rules,’ Sarah reminded me. If you’ve never heard of Qix, you’ve probably played a variation of it on a mobile phone or something. It’s the one where you have to section off chunks of the screen; like drawing on an Etch-a-Sketch but with enemies chasing after your cursor. Taito revived Qix as Volfied in the early nineties, while Kaneko spent ten years making Qix clones where drawing boxes revealed mucky pictures of cartoon ladies.

I picked up the controller and sulked through my turn, but managed to win by a narrow margin.

Score: Ryan 1, Sarah 3

Alpine Ski (1982)

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A dull dodge-the-objects game made utterly hateful thanks to its appalling collision detection. I’ve made a solemn vow never to play this one again.

Score: Ryan 2, Sarah 3

Wild Western (1982)

Cowboy-themed shooter with an utterly bizarre isometric-but-not viewpoint that makes it really hard to see where you’re aiming. I pipped Sarah in the points department when I discovered, by chance, that you could shoot in different directions by moving the right analogue stick.

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Score: Ryan 3, Sarah 3

Chack ‘n’ Pop (1983)

Our initial excitement at the sight of characters familiar to us from the later Bubble Bobble didn’t last long; Chack ‘n’ Pop‘s breezy bomb throwing, platforming action is hamstrung by a needlessly fiddly control system, and by this time the booze was beginning to take its toll. Next.

Score: Ryan 3, Sarah 4

Front Line (1983)

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A Commando-type vertical shooter with soldiers and hand grenades. An instantly forgettable game, and one which Sarah really didn’t get on with – luckily for me.

Score: Ryan 4, Sarah 4

Fairyland Story (1985)

Another proto-Bubble Bobble platformer, Fairyland Story stars a rather charmless wizard who can turn his enemies into slices of cake with a wave of his wand. We discovered that you can push the cakes off ledges to kill other critters for bonus points, though this required expert timing to pull off – a task made more difficult by fatigue and beer. Not a bad game, but not a patch on the classic Bubble Bobble either.

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Score: Ryan 4, Sarah 5

Legend of Kage (1985)

By the time we reached the tenth game the witching hour had passed and we’d run out of alcohol, so Legend of Kage would be the deciding bout. 

I was careful not to mention that Kage was the first game of the evening that I’d played numerous times before in my youth – though the Spectrum version was way, way more difficult than the arcade version presented on this collection.

A slick and fast pre-Shinobi ninja fest, Kage is easily the best game of the marathon; your nimble little character can leap from tree to tree like he’s on wires, flinging shuriken and slashing away at enemies that get too close. Oddly, Sarah doesn’t become suspicious when I make it to the third level without losing a life.

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Score: Ryan 5, Sarah 5

The result, you’ll notice, was a draw, and the buyer of the cinema tickets remained undecided. We’ve since agreed to a rematch, which Sarah innocently suggested should be decided by holding a Puzzle Bobble tournament. Although I readily agreed at the time, it’s only now that I realise my tactical error: Sarah’s been playing Puzzle Bobble as I write this, and has just completed the player versus computer mode using only five credits… fair enough, but she’s buying the bloody popcorn.

Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.