Times are hard in the computer games industry. It seems that the nation's impecunious youth has tired of shelling out thirty quid for another Mario Bros clone or lacklustre martial arts thrash. Not before time.
If you're a games producer, you have to get smart. You can try subtle, you can try pretty and you can try cute. Or you can throw every last ounce of programming effort into blowing the socks off the poor gamester by pouring monsters, traps and bolts of lightning at his pixilated alter ego. Skyblazer goes for broke - if the punter can't catch his breath, he's not going to say 'Mmmmm, I'm bored'.
It starts calmly enough, with Sky, the hero, dashing about under a stormy sky, throwing punches and firebolts at oncoming nasties. The monsters are gorgeously grotesque, with golden aliens disgorging swarms of walking eyeballs and squadrons of giant purple Samurai robots vying with each other to tear Sky apart. Then it gets really nasty, the screen filling with gouts of flame and the floor giving way to pits stuffed with spikes. Before long, our fighter has to bounce from ceilings, walls and disintegrating platforms just to stay alive.
After each battle, a new power - flight, magical destruction spells, temporary invincibility - adds to the armory. There's a pause while an ancient sage with a racoon on his chin wibbles on about the impossibility of screens to come and gives you a password to skip the previous levels, and then it's back for an even more hellish melee with faster, larger and trickier opponents. The usual video-game fallbacks of fire, ice, forest and water worlds turn up on cue, but at a pace that defies deja vu.
The music helps pile on the agony, veering frantically between a Japanese epic movie orchestra playing James Bond at 78 rpm and the sort of oriental techno Gary Numan might make after a night on the sake.
Just the sort of game to give you Nintendonitis, the latest fashion in RSI, no sanctuary is offered in this relentless assault on senses and fingers. Unless you've got the reaction times of a hyperactive teenager after a gallon of triple-caffeinated cola, don't bother. But if you've a taste for fast and frantic, and don't mind twitching for half an hour after you stop playing, Skyblazer is an effective, imaginative alternative to amphetamines.
Equinox (Super NES)
Equinox, also for the Super NES, is a much calmer kettle of fish. A game that can be played at the pace of your choosing, it's a tastefully rendered epic quest through a large and involved landscape. It starts on one of seven islands, each of which has a mass of monsters above ground and a network of fiendish dungeons below.
The dungeons are prettily displayed in isometric 3D projection; each has a hidden weapon and plenty of thoroughly unhidden beasties to use it on. The usual quota of hopping, dodging and carefully timed side-stepping is required to get through each room, and, once each dungeon has been cleared, the hidden master of the area pops out to give you one final and particularly taxing test.
Some of the levels take a long time to suss, and for every correct way to clear a screen of ghoulies, there are five or ten temptingly plausible but not quite possible alternatives. Patience is most definitely required for those irritating moments when a giant skull with glowing eyes runs its incisors over your body for the fiftieth time.
As atmospheric and thoughtful as Skyblazer is intense, Equinox has many small pleasures to compensate for the larger frustrations. When the main character is killed, his bejewelled turban hovers bewitchingly in the air while an eldritch scream echoes through the land. This game doesn't redefine the state of the art, but it'll last longer than any five England innings.
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