Monday, 25 December 2017

Game Review: First Samurai (Commodore 64)

Developed by Vivid Image and published by Image Works in 1992

By 1992, the 16-bit revolution was in full swing. Sega was leading the charge across the pond in the U.S. with the Sega Genesis, whilst the Commodore Amiga 500 and Atari ST computers were finding their way into millions of households across Europe.

Vivid Image would release First Samurai for the Amiga and ST in 1991 and it quickly gained a reputation as one of the most impressive titles available at the time. The Amiga version, in particular, was renowned for it's sumptuous graphics and digitised audio effects, not to mention being a solid arcade action game. The game reviewed extremely favourably in just about all of the mainstream gaming publications of the day with Amiga Action, the magazine that I subscribed to, awarding it 94%.

Whilst the 16-bit version is the one that most people remember, there was still enough of a market for older 8-bit home micros to warrant the development of a version of the game for Commodore's venerable C64. It would be easy to disregard this version, particularly if you were going by visuals alone; there's no way the older 8-bit tech was going to be able to deliver a comparable experience in the audio-visual department. However, give the game a chance and you might be surprised to discover one of the most polished and playable games to grace the system.

The game itself is a side-scrolling action-platformer where the objective is to guide the titular samurai on an epic quest to avenge the death of his master who has been slain by the evil demon king. Aided by the enigmatic wizard mage, the samurai faces untold perils as he travels across feudal Japan, modern-day Tokyo and beyond.

The principle objective of each of the game's levels is to find a series of objects that can be used to open the way to the next stage.The levels themselves are substantial and are infested with servants of the demon king, all of whom are trying to bring your adventure to a premature end.

The game has impressive graphics for a C64 title

Although initially unarmed, the samurai is trained in the martial arts and can dispatch foes with a series of well-timed punches and kicks. Vanquished foes release a burst of soul energy that is absorbed automatically; collect enough energy and the wizard will grant the samurai the use of a magical sword with which to defend himself. Not only does the sword allow the samurai to attack with increased strength, it can also save him from death - should the samurai's health be depleted, his sword power will be depleted and a small portion of physical health restored to keep him alive. Although this might not seem like such a big deal, you have to remember that this was an era where games were notoriously unforgiving, so this design choice is a break from the norm and remains one of the game's most interesting mechanics.

In addition to powering the sword, soul energy can be channelled into special regeneration pots throughout the game. Pressing down on the joystick whilst standing over a pot will channel energy into the pot until it is fully charged; the pots act as checkpoints, enabling the player to resume the game from the most recently activated pot in the event of dying.

Scattered around each of the levels are small treasure chests, all of which can be broken open to reveal extra health, ranged weapons, as well as items needed to beat the level. Once these items have been collected, the samurai must find the correct location and summon the wizard mage to unlock the path ahead. Summoning the wizard can only be performed through the ringing of a golden bell, so players should always be sure to locate this item as soon as possible.

Fighting enemies on a speeding train

One of the most impressive things about the C64 version is just how much content there is! All ten of the levels from the 16-bit version are present and correct, making this one of the longest games of it's type for the platform. The levels themselves are quite large and it's really impressive that the developers managed to cram up to four levels at a time into a single load.

Given the size of the levels and other features, it's not surprising that First Samurai is a multi-load game in order to work within the 6 KB memory restrictions of the machine. Multi-load games were infamous among C64 owners since dying on a later stage would invariably result in an on-screen prompt that would instruct you to rewind the tape to the beginning, forcing you to sit through another 10 minutes of painful loading before you could play again. Fortunately, the developers decided to include a basic password system where successful completion of all levels in the current load will award a password, allowing players to skip ahead and resume the game at a later stage.

On to graphics next, and, if you've only ever experienced the Amiga version, it might seem all too easy to look down one's nose at how the game looks. Mat Sneap did an excellent job in "devolving" Teoman Irmak's original artwork to fit within the confines of the C64's comparatively meagre hardware and it's certainly one of the best looking games available on Commodore's 8-bit system. Factor in some super-smooth scrolling and you have a game that could stand alongside some of the better platform games available on console at the time.

Shiny visuals are worthless if the actual gameplay isn't up to scratch, but I'm pleased to report that this is as equally polished. The controls are, for the most part, excellent, and the general presentation is to an extremely high standard; this is definitely a first tier title in the C64's library!

Jelly the sewers?

The game does have a few issues, however, such as the way enemies spawn right in front of your face, leaving very little time to react to them. I ended up losing more health than I'd have liked due to blundering head-first into these proximity-popping baddies!

There are also a few places in the game where you're required to summon the wizard in order to summon platforms or remove obstacles, but there's no suggestion that you need to ring the bell; I got stuck in a couple of the later levels because I didn't realise the wizard was needed and I wasted time trying to figure out exactly what to do next.

Fortunately, these issues aren't severe enough to adversely impact the game in any meaningful way. I went into the game expecting it to fall short in light of the Amiga version, but was surprised to find that, in certain respects, it's actually the better version of the two! It might not look as fancy as it's 16-bit sibling, but don't let that put you off as you'd be missing out on one of the best platform games the C64 has to offer.

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