[It's time for another Monthly Musing -- the monthly community blog theme that provides readers with a chance to get their articles and discussions printed on the frontpage. -- CTZ]
Long ago, in the 80’s, videogames were making the transition, pupae-like, from arcade closets to home computers. It was at the cusp of this computer boom that my Dad very wisely recognized that his erstwhile eight-year-old son needed to be at the forefront of this emerging technology. And thus he spazzed £500 of his meager wad on an Amstrad 464.
Now gamers of this generation will remember, fondly I’m sure, that many titles would often take longer to load than they would be actually playable. Ghostbusters 2 was a legend in this regard; An epic 45 minute load time coupled with such an insane first level difficulty whereby if you died once you would have to reload the game and start over.
Patience in such a regard is something that children, and gamers alike, seldom posses. The last thing you would want after finally being able to actually interact with the game would be story or subtly-inflected characters and their pointless histories bogging them down. No, they wanted action. Action and killer graphics.
(Killer Graphics Yeah!)
Of course this was long before the likes of Yahtzee and Co. and their valid complaints about weak characterization, unoriginal story-telling and drab endings. It was all about the gameplay (or lack thereof) back then. If they deemed it necessary developers would typically print the game’s plot either on the back of the box or in the instruction booklet. Usually, though, most games only required a simple blurb to get their point across.
R-Type was no exception.
Simply emblazoned under the title was its battle-call: “Blast off and destroy the evil Bydo Empire”.
Who were the Bydo? Why do they need destroying? Who cared? R-type was always about the game, never the back-story, and whilst subsequent incarnations have retro-fitted the canon somewhat to make it vaguely interesting, the gameplay still overshadows it considerably.
Deeply claustrophobic, the game is one of pure skill, patience and razor-sharp reactions. Saying it is unforgiving would be putting it mildly. Personally, on the 464 version, I never got passed the second level. But it isn’t the difficulty that made it so memorable. It was the first boss: Dobkeratops.
The first true challenge, unless you failed at the slow moving circle thing, Dobkeratops appears as some bizarre, multi-eyed space-foetus blocking your way from penetrating deeper into the Bydo dimension. An amalgamation of flesh, metal and HR Giger, it hovers about shooting at you with hazy fireballs, whilst protecting its vital areas with its equally deadly tail (everything was equally deadly -- if you got hit you died).
(A selection of various R-Type promo's from throughout the ages)
Tactics were simple: Avoid the fireballs and the tail, and position yourself so that you could make the odd hit at its occasionally exposed midsection where a mutant head thing was mounted. Hit it enough times and you win.
Depending on whether you were rubbish or not, and if you’d managed to accumulate enough of those globule-like power-ups (the reflecting beams were a favourite of mine), the boss could either be a total walkover or a complete ex-girlfriend style bitch. Precision was the key here; regardless of its movements always being the same. Yours were not, and this often led to miscalculation and thus instant death.
Perhaps it’s a testament to the games difficulty that Dobkeratops remains the most memorable boss encounter. People simply never got very far after they blasted him into space granules. Yet the big D features prominently in each of the sequels, and was the inspiration for all the promotional artwork for the game upon release.
In terms of appearance it maintained an alien quality, beyond the typical snake/worm comparison, one could make of the second boss. And again, while in terms of execution as a mechanic -- as a boss -- it is neither impossible nor random, as the bosses following it. It remains a mark of skill to defeat it, not luck which is something seldom few difficult boss encounters today can boast.
So to Dobkeratops, I salute you and all your malign alien magnificence.