Stephen Crow's programming history reminds me of Amstrad. His stuff is not particularly original, but it does ring some interesting changes on some familiar ideas and sometimes he does it better.
So it is with Firelord, the first offering from Stephen now that he has left Bubble Bus and joined Hewson.
The cruel and cynical will say that Firelord is Attic Attac-meets-Sabre Wulf and thus dismiss it as yet another Ultimate clone. But it's a very, very good Ultimate clone: fast, vast, visually stunning and tremendous fun to play.
The background is a sort of Walt Disneyesque tudor backdrop - the land of Torot - where all the inhabitants have been cursed and turned into ghostly apparitions - a little like Rhyl on a Sunday in fact. You have to get the pieces of an eternal youth spell to trade for the Firestone which will release everybody from the trance... etc, etc.
It so happens that the inhabitants are the kind of cute little assorted yokels that fill Ultimate games and the hero if a little knight with a big helmet. Apparitions materialise a few seconds after you enter a location in an Ultimatesque mini-explosion and wander about aimlessly, bumping into you and getting in the way.
You do get to defend yourself from the inhabitants of Torot and kill them in large numbers, which is a pleasing but futile pastime, since they keep on coming. To start blasting you need one of those all-purpose magic crystals - you should find one lying about somewhere, although there is a lot of ground to cover, literally hundreds of screens.
Other assorted objects you may find scattered around include food (= energy), crystals, hay (?), and some easily identified objects. Pick them up by running over them.
All this stuff is hardly anything new.
Firelord does though have some nicely inventive touches that I haven't seen elsewhere. There are small details like the ice flames you can set burning by running away even more quickly. More significant is the trade option which forms an essential part of solving the game. Objects you collect can often be exchanged for tips, guidance, spells and other objects on entering one of a number of houses owned by certain key figures in the game.
The trading section is a change from the usual Ultimate-style backdrops. The screen displays the owner of the house you have entered - with an animated head which turns to look left and right, the objects you have on offer, the objects the owner has on offer and a hand icon. Ordinarily you use the joystick to select one of your objects and one of the owners objects thereby offering a trade. If it is accepted the object will appear in a third column and you may take it. There is, however, another way of doing business...
You can steal! When the owner turns away you can try to press the hand icon, dash over with the cursor and press the object you wish to steal and finally press the exit icon. Do it in time and you get the object for nothing. Should the face turn and 'see' you then you stand trial.
The trial is a little like those options on gambling machines where win/lose flashes alternately, except that in this case it's guilty/innocent. Careful timing might get you off - the trouble is you have to go through the process three times with guilty/innocent flashes getting faster and faster - it isn't easy and you could lose up to three lives - crime doesn't pay (unless you are very good at it).
I guess Firelord does for Sabre Wulf-period Ultimate what Dan Dare did for Manic Miner, ie it made up for its lack of basic plot originality by being beautifully designed, excellently programmed, bigger and by ringing a few more changes here and there it diffuses any serious claims of a rip-off.
And, because of all this, Firelord is a lot of fun.
Author: Steve Crow
Reviewer: Graham Tayor
Looks like Ultimate circa Sabre Wulf but is vast, well designed and not without original ideas. Lots of fun.
Recognise the little charadcter in the helmet? A motly collection of zombied townspeople prepare to attack.
Someone's house. The open door means you may enter. The Zap spell (top right in the status display) could be exchanged for something else. But what?
Entering the wood. Three men with pickaxes don't want you to leave. Spell power is at zero. Three lives left. Energy level is high.
Another house to explore. Dodge the flame which rises and falls intermittently.