Lullaby For A Heartsick Spacer

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Man, I’m so tired y’know? Between kids, cats, caring, making games and life, it really wears you down at times. I sat there a week or so ago and tried to wrestle with how long it had been since I last had what most normal human beings would call a comfortable night’s sleep and I came up with “around 4 years”.

Maybe that’s why Lullaby For A Heartsick Spacer resonates so much?

I can totally empathise with the idea of just wanting to be somewhere, anywhere, quiet and just lying down for a nap. And if that’s in a cave in outer space, well, if that’s what it takes, right? But it’s not just that, I know it’s not just that. It’s the whole games as peaceful things too. We’re long overdue exploring these avenues and for me, doing just that is the best thing to come out of the new wave of people adding to what-videogames-are.

Lullaby For A Heartsick Spacer then. It’s a game where you go and sleep when you want to, where you want. In space.

HEX

That’s HEX, short for House Electronic eXperience which could, quite possibly, be the single most late eighties name for a music project attached to videogames anyone could have come up with. It’s all in the X, naturally.

And what a curious project that was, really. HEX occupied cassette space after releases from the equally eighties named software house The Power House. THE POWER HOUSE! A company that had a mascot called (wait for it) The Power Mouse and yes, it was a robot space mouse with a rocket pack because what else would he be? The nineteen eighties, folks. What a time to be alive that was.

So yeah, The Power House then. A label whose legacy somehow lives on by every few months someone on the internet discovering Soft And Cuddly, the follow up release to Go To Hell and one of a pair of scareware releases for the Speccy with more than a passing obsession with Alice Cooper shock-rock-isms and some of the most amazing pixel art gore ever to grace videogame screens. Obviously, that also includes a hastily scribbled pixel art attempt at Alice Cooper’s head from, erm, Alice Cooper Goes To Hell. Obviously it does.

Seriously, look at this, it’s incredible.

It’s all so amazingly teenage! Bless. TRIPLE SIX SOFTWARE. *spooky noises*

Anyway. Where was I? Ah yeah, HEX.

It wasn’t too out there or unusual for videogames to be accompanied by the odd singalong here and there. Whether it be the idle TV sitcom theme-isms of Mike Berry’s Everyone’s A Wally (the B-side to Mikrogen’s actually pretty good Everyone’s A Wally) or Mel Croucher’s little ditties or licensed tracks to go along with the licensed videogame you’d just bought, this stuff kinda happened. Where The Power House’s approach differed was in using the same band for multiple releases. Oh, and not ever inflicting this sort of thing on me:

I’m not sure the world was really ready for that but hey ho.

Across the course of six or seven releases, The Power House games doubled up as the video game as pop single too. Pop singles such as:

Or this:

You can check out more of these at Anna Beep’s Powerhouse Tapes soundcloud or at TheEarlOfChip’s YouTube channel if you’re interested in digging a little deeper into the music itself.

But who or what was HEX? How did it come about? Well. In that oh so terribly convenient way, I figured it was long overdue to get some words out about what would otherwise be a fairly forgotten part of our videogame history and went off and asked the chap who was HEX to tell us all about it.

HEX was, primarily, the work of musician Wayne Allen. This is Wayne in a more recent guise as Sam X:

And you might have seen his face somewhere before as a 15 years served member of The Dopplegangers, U2’s official tribute band. Or you may not, if U2 tribute bands aren’t your thing, natch. Wayne’s off doing his own thing now but I managed to coax him into spending a few minutes spilling the beans.

Rob: So how did this all come about then? I know there was a thing at the time for including the odd piece of music alongside a game but that was either licensed stuff from an arcade game or a band you already know kind of thing (the Frankie Goes To Hollywood game springs to mind here), at a push sometimes you’d see stuff where the author would include a little track of their own or something but I think The Power House is fairly unique in commissioning tracks to go alongside the games. So yeah, I’m sort of curious how you fall into this kind of thing, I guess.

Wayne: I have always played in bands and spent time writing and recording songs. In the early 80’s I got my first job in a recording studio – I was basically the tea boy and had to run off copies of tapes for clients as well as do the hovering and other mundane jobs. However during ‘downtime’ when the studio wasn’t being used I had use of the facilities and would use the time to record my own songs. I played guitar, bass and sung and could play basic keyboard parts. When I needed a drummer I would call up my friend Andy Wood as Andy and I had played in a couple of bands together.

I released one of the songs as a self financed independent single and it was well received by some influential people in the music industry (most notably John Peel) and although it didn’t achieve chart success it put me on the road to becoming an established songwriter.

Andy went on to work in the computer games industry eventually running his own computer games company The Power House. I went on to play in various bands writing and recording songs and working on a variety of studio projects. Andy and I remained good friends.

One day, Andy and I were talking about the fact that the cassette tapes the programmes for his games were recorded on were of standard sizes (to the nearest 5 minutes) and there was often blank space left at the end. Andy thought of filling it with music and I had unreleased material that no one was getting to hear so we came up with the idea of putting these tracks on the end of the tapes. For Andy it gave his customers a bit of extra value and it gave me exposure for my music. It was as simple as that really. There was no great plan behind it.

Rob: One of the things I used to appreciate (and still do, I guess) is that you never quite knew what the song was going to sound like. With something like Soft & Cuddly, you end up with this sort of piledriving cod-goth thing and then the next tape you’ll pick up it’ll be a dance-y singalong affair. What was the thinking behind this? Was it matching the tunes to the games, just having a bit of fun or something else? Did you even get to play the games before recording?

Wayne: The songs weren’t specifically written for the games but we did try to match suitable tracks with the games as much as possible, however I did get to play them beforehand.

Rob: Was there ever any input from the folks who wrote the games or did you get to wing it all by yourself?

Wayne: There was no input from the programmers it was just songs/ music I was writing for different projects.

Rob: The more I think about it, the more I reckon you’d be hard pressed to find a more 1980’s name than House Electronic Xperience, we’ve sort of stopped doing the X without E thing now probably because it’s not the 1980s anymore. Were there ever any other names kicked around for the band or was this it from the get go?

Wayne: The name came from Andy’s car – it had a personalised number plate it was HEX something or other. We thought HEX sounded good and tried to think what it might stand for. House music was on the rise, the music was made with the technology of the time, so we thought the E could stand for ‘Electronic’ and as you said the X was just very 80s – it seemed cool at the time!

Rob: Any stuff left over or not used at the time?

Wayne: We used the best tracks we had at the time so even though there probably was other tracks left over – they probably weren’t that good. Everything was mastered on to a Revox B77 tape machine which I’ve still got, but is in need of repair. I’ll have to get it serviced and go through the master tapes to find out what else there was. I’ll get around to it one day….

Rob: Do you miss videogames? Any regrets there and would you do it all over again given a chance or one best left in the past, onwards and upwards and all that?

Wayne: I don’t have any real regrets but at the time there was a lot of talk about ‘interactive’ games and I was asked by another company to come up with some interactive music for other games – which never happened in the end, which is a shame. With the benefit of hind sight that might have been quite interesting. I’m quite happy with the way things turned out and very pleased that there is still some interest in the music so many years later. I really will have to dig out the old tapes and get that Revox fixed and maybe remaster them and bring them in to digital age. Or on second thoughts, maybe they should be left sounding as they did on cassette.

Rob: Thanks for your time.

Soft And Cuddly

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“I can’t stand ‘nice’ inoffensive things, like Jimmy Tarbuck and Terry And June”

Sinclair User, October 1987

Myriad

Myriad is a game I could watch videos of all day without much in the way of complaints. I mean, just look at it, right?

Deadeye

Whilst the gallery shooter has never been the most populated genre of shooty bang explosion things, the rarity of finding a decent one makes the few that do exist all the more precious. That most of the really good ones of recent times are pretty much lost from the mainstream (or will be lost when this last generation wraps up the servers in time) and the few that seem to creep through these days come with shops, upgrades and all the boring trappings of gotta-hook-them-all, the disappearance of a really good one from the net is a thing that depresses me a tad.

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And so it is with Deadeye, a Redpoint game previously available from the now mainly dormant web magazine Way Of The Rodent over ten or so years ago, it’s a pitch perfect take on the Galaga/Galaxian theme with one eye on more modern ideas of precision and risky scoring. To its credit it’s a game that fits right at home in the great arcade gallery shooter pantheon, only slightly dated by its use of 3d rendered art.

But as is the way of the internet, despite making the occasional brief return, Deadeye has been lost to time as Redpoint:The Music kinda took its place. (As a sidenote, Redpoint:The Music is really, really good and you should check it out.)

It’s a bit janky round the edges being so old now and I didn’t have much joy getting the fullscreen version running in Windows 8 but the windowed version still works and looks and plays just fine.

So let’s not lose Deadeye from the internet and to time.

Download and play the game for Windows.

We Are Doomed

We Are Doomed is one of my fave shooters of the past few years and it’s out now on the Xbox One and PS4. Steam version follows next week.

I love We Are Doomed a whole lot. So much so that six months ago I described it as “one of the best arena shooters ever made” and I’m not willing to change that judgement in any sort of hurry. I’ve long argued for the game as pop single, I’ve talked on here about the game as prog record, We Are Doomed is the videogame as Emeralds.

And that’s kinda OK, you know? I am absolutely OK with this. Even if I am being a bit unfair because the soundtrack is very much its own brand of ambient-wibbly-prog-synth stuff and it’s very, very good in and of itself without some idiot on the internet trying to draw comparisons.

The unfortunate thing about We Are Doomed is that whilst it looks spectacular when you’re playing it, I don’t think this really translates too well into a video or a trailer. Not really singling We Are Doomed out for this either, I guess. It’s a thing with arena shooters. So I’ll just say trust Matt Lees on this, he’s not wrong.

For me, the thing I like about it most is that it’s a game that makes the most of not very much. It’s pure in a way that videogames aren’t really allowed to be nearly enough. There’s no fluff or filling with progress based unlocks and whatever other tat people decide to throw in to keep people hooked. It’s just a very good videogame and it’s content to be that. I dearly wish more games were content to be that, y’know?

I don’t need to be tricked into coming back to a game if the game’s just bloody great, ta. I’ll remember it and still play it for years to come. Not really sure how we forgot this is a thing that can happen. It’s certainly a thing I wish the new Geometry Wars had remembered but hey ho. You can’t have everything.

So yeah, We Are Doomed. Go play that. It’s great. I’ve been playing it on and off for six months and it’s only got better in its new incarnation so I guess I’ll be playing it on and off for years to come.

Mutant Storm Empire

Man, could I have ever been more wrong about Mutant Storm:Empire if I tried? Not just in the “wrong about the game” sense but the “wrong as a human” sense too, really.

Reading through the ever excellent Tim Stone’s write up of the quirks and downsides of World Of Subways 4 earlier, noting how affectionate it is whilst still managing to prod at all the important parts where it falls down, sort of wishing that this was a skill I’d developed much sooner. But I guess that’s why I have this place now, yeah?

So Mutant Storm Empire then. There’s a game that I didn’t really appreciate when it came out. Yes, yes, that’s an understatement. For a long while, I couldn’t stand the game, called it rubbish in no uncertain terms. Years on, I was wrong, the game’s fine.

It’s not just fine. Looking back, it’s kinda bold to be what it is, especially for the time.

I’ve learned to like Mutant Storm Empire a whole lot but more than that I’ve learned to respect it a whole lot. It deserves more love than it got. Heck, it definitely deserves more love than I gave it. Let’s remedy that.

I’ve been trying to think of a quick way of summarising Mutant Storm Empire and it’s a toughy, y’know?

Here’s one.

It’s the Call Of Duty campaign that’s a twin stick shooter that gets increasingly weird as you progress, made by a handful of folks with an owl. Or something. No owl. Forget the owl. Maybe that’s what it is. All that minus an owl.

The first screen kind of fools you into thinking you’re in for a SmashTV sort of affair but it quickly becomes clear once the game starts funnelling you into tight, cramped corridors, PomPom aren’t settling for anything too, well, conventional.

There’s no throwing the player into an arena akin to the first Mutant Storm for each and every stage, there’s no Geometry Wars style spawning, no Robotron ‘save the last humans’, there’s no Alien Breed exploration or SmashTV choice of pathways. It’s a game of pushing forward, always forward, through corridors. Maybe that makes it the Call Of Duty campaign of arena shooters? I dunno, you still need to shoot everything so maybe not quite.

OK, OK, I lied. It’s not the Call Of Duty campaign of arena shooters but it does have lots of corridors, alright? And you, as a player, will be moving down those corridors shooting stuff. There is that.

It’s a weird game in the way games used to be weird, that sort of Very British Bedroom Coder-y weird.

Sure, the first world has you shooting robots and cannons and missiles, typical shooty game in space fodder all in. Hit up the second world though and the clanky metal flooring, the all too familiar this-is-a-videogame-in-space environments and enemies disappear, replaced with an altogether more alien place. Vegetation, water perhaps? A giant space fish with bulbous egg sacs, a fish dude throwing up at you, it’s very videogame but not especially 2007 videogame, I guess.

The more you move forward, the more Empire messes around, refusing to settle. Scorgasm and the hurry-up-and-come-out Son Of Scoregasm are the only arena shooters I can think of that try a similar trick but nothing else has that sense of being somewhere and that somewhere being really, really odd.

OK, OK, hear me out. Here’s another one. Mutant Storm Empire is the closest cousin to something like Fantasy Software’s “The Pyramid” that I can think of. Where every room brings a new thing, new enemies, new behaviours and you’re always pushing forward through somewhere.

That’s an approach not without issues, naturally. It’s a game so interested in throwing new stuff at you all the time, it often feels like you never really have chance to get used to anything or to develop much in the way of tactics. No sooner have you got used to one set of enemies then another load are introduced.

The simplistic combo system does little to add much in the way of scoring depth to things, shoot so many of one colour, shoot so many of another, get your bonus. It’s a weirdly mechanical system that perhaps strays a bit too far into requiring the player to memorise a lot of individual rooms and wave patterns to score really well. It’s not even that it’s bad, really. It just sort of feels curiously old fashioned design-wise by 2007 videogame standards.

Yeah, that’s a weird thing to write out too now I think on. A game that keeps throwing new things at you feels old fashioned. I dunno either.

Maybe it’s not The Pyramid then because well, The Pyramid is fairly consistent in the challenges it throws at you room to room. But it’s definitely the same sort of spirit.

You know what? Mutant Storm Empire is just Mutant Storm Empire. It’s a testament to it that I have to wrangle my head in all manner of directions to even begin to pin it down as being like something else.

Putting the obvious “it’s a twin stick shooter” stuff to one side, Mutant Storm Empire does what Mutant Storm Empire does and no other game does the same way. It’s a series of micro-challenges crammed into tight and tiny corridors, punctuated by ridiculous boss fights. Not Platinum ridiculous, ridiculous in the “whaaat?” sense of ridiculous AND it’s a very British home computer game on a modern console.

The absolute last thing you could ever accuse the game of is not trying. You hear that, 2007 me? What a stupid idiot it would take to say that.

It’s not a perfect game, it’s not the best game ever and it’s a game that sometimes feels like it’s so committed to being Mutant Storm Empire that it’s stuck with itself, flaws and all. And you know what? Maybe that’s not what 2007 me felt like he wanted but that’s the sort of thing 2015 me really wants to see more of. More things that are, unmistakably, those things and those things only. Flaws and all.

I wish more games were their own Mutant Storm Empire and these days, I’m glad Mutant Storm Empire is a thing that exists. Whilst everyone else explored the same three or four avenues of arena shooting design, Pompom chose a road less travelled, a road still pretty much deserted at that. More games poking into vaguely unexplored corners of genres, yeah?

Mutant Storm Empire is still out on the Xbox 360 and I’m still hanging in there for the PC port to see the light of day sometime. There’s only so much checking SteamDB one can do with their life, right?

Tempest 1992

Tempest 1992 never existed, never would exist. The concept of Tempest 1992 came about as part of a brief series by ACE magazine tasking the then top coders with re-imagining a classic game.

I think the series only ever consisted of two articles as ACE magazine would close up shop pretty soon after and the first part, for those curious, is pretty much Peter “Russian Fish Simulator” Molyneux inventing Crossy Road a good twenty years before anyone could be bothered inventing Crossy Road for reals. Although, naturally enough with the sort of Peter Molyneux twists you’d expect. And by twists, I mean “has a fart joke” but there we are.

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Tempest 1992, however, is the Bitmap Bros what-if videogame. How would a 16 bit version updated version of Tempest actually work? Well, from the description I worry the answer is likely “not sure it would” but it’s an interesting what could have been all the same and Dan Malone’s mock up art work is undoubtedly a beautiful thing all the same. I guess I’d just be satisfied with some Tempest-y prints rather than the game itself. Someone make this happen.