Thursday, 7 November 2013

HEWSON GAMES - Covertapes Can Yield Forgotten Classics

By Ewan Robinson

Covertapes Can Yield Forgotten Classics - a Hewson tale...

If you are a gamer of a certain age (or have a healthy interest in gaming on home micros from the 80’s and 90’s), you will almost certainly have encountered games published by Hewson Consultants and their later iteration 21st Century Entertainment.  Many of their classic games have appeared on a wide variety of platforms varying from the original Sinclair and Commodore home micros, the 16-bit successors to that market the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga and even appeared on Nintendo’s Virtual Console service as well as Commodore 64 Plug-n-Play TV Game systems in recent years.

As a collector of older hardware and software, I have a large amount of software for various systems gleaned from a wide variety of sources;  some has survived numerous house moves, others rescued from friends lofts or purchased in bulk lots from Ebay.  While emulators are the easiest choice for most people (and perfectly acceptable for playing on), I prefer to play my games in their original format and on original hardware.  For this article I decided to go back through my collection and see exactly how much Hewson and 21st Century software had accumulated and, providing my hardware was up to the task after 20-odd years, revisit these games again.

Going through my cassettes and disks I discovered that though I had few Hewson games in their original packaging many more were to be found on the fair number of Covertapes that were given away with Sinclair and Commodore games magazines.  These Covertapes included both full games and demo versions of then-newly released software.  For a retrogamer these sources should never be overlooked as there are many hidden gems hidden there.  

Crash magazine (for the Sinclair Spectrum) and Commodore Format (for the C64) seemed to host the most of these games, from around 1988-1991, though I found a few for the Atari ST & Amiga, both as Coverdisks and as software bundled with the machines themselves.  I seem to recall a budget range for 16 bit machines that also included a few titles too, I think by Prism Leisure.

(Note: Unfortunately upon setting up my machines in preparation, I discovered my Sinclair Spectrum+ has developed a malfunction and as such I have not looked over the Crash tapes in this article.  Hopefully I can repair it and bring you a Hewson Spectrum Special article in the future)

Below are the Commodore 64, Atari ST and Amiga games that by pure random chance had been lurking in my collection.  Those of you with large collections of tapes and disks may well have these and others, as it is by no means a complete list.  Dates mentioned are the date the game was copyrighted and not the date of the magazine in the case of Covertapes and Disks.

Shockway Rider (by FTL, 1988)
(C64) Commodore Format CF5
Perhaps not the most auspicious start on my journey of (re)discovery was this game.  As a futuristic trouble-maker on a set of three moving walkways, throw bricks at by-standers, avoid the other gangers and reach the objective.

Ok, the game itself isn’t particularly one of Hewsons greats, but it does use some rather nifty graphics tricks to give the impressions of parallax scrolling (technically impossible on a C64 but clever programmers could get around that) and sprite scaling and even some primitive digitisation features in the presentation.  An interesting look at some ways to bend the C64 graphically, though the game is a bit shallow, even by the standards of the day.

Anarchy (by Michael Sentinella, Music by Nigel Grove, 1987)
(C64) Commodore Format CF10
A brilliant little game that I very much still enjoy. Guide a little tank (actually, its a tank destroyer, but lets not get into semantics) around a maze, shoot out the blocks and battle enemies.  Think Atari’s Combat mixed with Boulderdash or Repton and you get the idea.

The thing I really like about Anarchy is that when you shoot out the blocks it plays musical notes. These are very nicely done as to never grate on the player’s hearing and also randomly generate the sound in a pleasing manner.  More games should have quirks like this and a good soundscape is also a feature of many Hewson titles, either in effects or musically.

(Note:  Not to be confused with Psygnosis’ Anarchy which is a Defender clone)

Mission Impossibubble (By Mat, Music by Demon, 1989)
(C64) Commodore Format CF16
Isometric puzzle-shooter with very nice music and some up to the minute effects for its time. Like many later 8-bit Hewson games, Mission Impossibubble uses many graphical techniques to make the game look a lot more advanced than the aging hardware would otherwise allow. The game is quite entertaining with a steep difficulty, but retains an all important one-more-go quality, and the charming characters and pleasant sound effects still work nicely.

Head The Ball (By Jason Page, Spectrum version by Cybadyne, 1989)
(C64) Commodore Format CF16
Combining the best elements of Wizball and Cauldron II, Head the Ball is a perfectly functional and enjoyable platform game. Guide the titular Head along screens of enemies to reach the goal.

The game is well designed, and allows various different ways of traversing most screens.  Again, the sound really stands out, specifically the music, and the controls are much more friendly (though less realistic in terms of physics) than Cauldron II’s ridiculously uncontrollable pumpkin.  I guess Heads are more maneuverable than decorative squashes!

Cyberdyne Warrior (By John & Steve Rowlands, 1989) (C64) Commodore Format CF17
A fun multi-screen platform shooter, Cyberdyne Warrior’s space marine lives in a world not unlike that of Turrican or Metroid.  However, he eschews fancy gadgets and being able to turn into a gyro-ball in favour of firepower and lots of it!

Blast, leap and collect your way through enemies of all kinds in this sci-fi action blaster. Again, Cyberdyne Warrior displays some of the graphical flourishes that would come to be much more familiar on later 16 bit machines.  A very enjoyable game all in all and one I will definately play more of.

Battle Valley (By Simon Wellard & Mark Washbrook, 1988)
(C64) Commodore Format CF17
Silkworm?  Nah.  S.W.I.V.?  Pff who needs it. Not when you have the awesome Battle Valley from Hewson!  Choose between helicopter or scorpion tank in this scrolling shooter. You choose whether to go left or right, ground or air attack.  Bases reload your ammo and enemies will try to shoot you down or destroy you no matter what method you choose.

Aim your cannon up or down in tank mode, take cover, retreat to a better position or fly high or nape-of-the-earth in the chopper in this nice well-rounded Moon Patrol-meets-Choplifter style game.

Firelord (By Stephan Crow, C64 version by John Cumming, 1986)
(C64) Commodore Format CF18
Classic flick-screen adventuring.  Firelord however does nothing to hide its roots on the ZX Spectrum, and in my opinion fails to take any advantage of the C64’s abilities.

Except in one place;  its theme-tune is one of the jolliest medieval ditties this side of Fairlight’s score and is very very good.

Paradroid (By Andrew Baybrook, 1985)
(C64) ZZap! Megatape 24
If you are a fan of the Commodore 64 and you have never heard of or played Paradroid I’m afraid you’ve missed out. Very simple graphically, though still effective, Paradroid is one of the best realised games of its time.  Explore a vast starship as the aforemention droid, evade destroy and “hack” to take over the other robots who have gone berzerk and make your way to the bridge to free the cowering captain and his cowardly crew.

With tons of replay value, for me its the slick controls and ease of play that make the game, though it is far from an easy jaunt walk in the park.

Gribbly’s Day Out (By Andrew Baybrook, 1985) (C64) ZZap! Megatape 25
Can Gribbley Grobbley save the strange things from the other, stranger things? Probably not.  But sure, go on, you might as well try. Even by early C64 standards the graphics are…. a little basic.  The game is odd, yet think Thrust with gravity and a frog with one leg instead of a spaceship and you are sort of slightly close.Hard to describe and nearly as hard to play, Gribbley’s Day Out is a game that will leave you saying…. “What"?!.

Ammotrack (By John M. Phillips, 1988) (ST) ST Action Games Disk (Unknown Issue)
This game claims at the start to be “an incomplete or demo version”. I'm not aware of a more complete version appearing, but perhaps it did. Think Roadblasters meets S.T.U.N. Runner and I think that’s what was being aimed for here.  Unfortunately, the framerate doesn’t quite cut the mustard on the speed side of things and the sound is virtually non-existant.

However, it would be unfair to totally slate Ammotrack.  The 3D effect works very well and once you get into the swing of it, pickup power-ups and dodging obstacles on the course, there’s a fair amount to be said for this little game.  I’d love to know if it was ever finally completed though.

Nebulus (By John M. Phillips, 1988)
(ST) Atari Power Pack Disk G
Another deserving classic.  Nebulus is a platformer concentrating on a rotational tower that you must ascend, avoiding or battling enemies as you do so.  Graphically impressive in all its formats, Nebulus is a brilliant game, even if its crushingly unfair at times. The ST version has unfortunately weak sound effects, but that’s more to the limitations of the platform/hardware itself rather than the game.  Graphically, its still very impressive and the game is a lot of fun, with a real “one-more-go” quality.

Steel (By Gary Biasillo & Mike Williams, 1989) (ST) Zero Cover Disk 22
This was the first “full game” I got on a cover disk for my Atari ST.  I really liked it.  You play a robot, not dissimilar in appearance from V.I.N.Cent from The Black Hole, and attempt to navigate your way around a starship filled with rogue robots, hacking computers to attempt to reach the bridge… the ...crew…  hmmmm I’ve heard this plot and style somewhere before….

Yes, its pretty much Paradroid for 16-bit machines. However, it gives and takes in equal measure. Graphically, it is very very very pretty, the metal of the robots is well coloured, the ship’s corridors look great, and the sound isnt too bad.  Unfortunately, you now play horizontally rather than top down, meaning that where you could drive around enemies in a room, you are often trapped in a corridor with them. They are much tougher to destroy than before and they damage you badly when they hit you. Get the pens out, because to complete this game you’ll need mapping skills. Odd, as in Paradroid the game had a map you could access by the ship’s computer.

Pinball Fantasies (Andreas Axelsson & Marcus Nystrom, 1992)
(Amiga) 21st Century Entertainment Original Version

Follow up to the successful Pinball Dreams, it does what it says on the tin providing four more beautifully designed pinball tables.  This game was expandable through data disks and featured brilliant sound, crisp clean graphics and a good sense of physics.

In my opinion the 21st Century Entertainment Pinball games on the Amiga blew away their competition on consoles and other home micros substantially, with only (and in my humble opinion)  Advanced Pinball Simulator on the Amstrad giving as fun (but much less graphically and audibly enriched) pinball experience.

Given that the above was a random selection of games gleaned from my collection, you can see how varied Hewson’s catalogue is.  Many games had very original features, and often some of the best sound work of their time, especially on the C64.  And I hope that this has inspired you to take another look at that heap of Covertapes gathering dust on the shelf.

Now, where did I put that screwdriver?  I have a dozen Hewson titles for the ZX Spectrum I want to play next…..

This GUEST BLOG review is by Ewan Robinson


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