YOU'VE BARELY started reading this review and already you're moaning 'oh no, not another Ultimate slagging off.' Well, you're right, up to a point, but I tried really hard to find something in Gunfright which lived up to the early '85 Ultimate standard.
This is the first offering from the UK's premier software house since Nightshade, some four month's ago. When Chris reviewed that game, back in October's issue, he ventured to predict that "Ultimate may be running out of steam. Or dare we hope for something really special this side of Christmas?"
Gunfright, which arrived at the tail end of last year, isn't it. It's different, but in ways which are scarcely going to appeal to die-hard Ashby addicts.
For a start, Gunfright's no arcade-adventure, but a shoot-'em-up. You're going to have to resort to those lightning joystick reactions. There are no puzzles to solve, no objects to collect... It's all bang, bang.
Graphically it's almost identical to Nightshade, with a 3D view of the alleys and shacks of a western town. As you mosey along the streets of Black Rock the buildings which would otherwise obscure you are replaced by white lines denoting their perimeters. Clusters of rocks scatter the roads and, peculiarly, the building interiors. A touch of the Z or Shift keys and your viewpoint changes to a different angle.
You control Sheriff Quickdraw, eyes peering out from beneath his ten-gallon stetson, and you're out to rid the town of, as the insert poetically puts it, a "whole loda baddies a whoopin' and a wailin' ". You're armed with a six-shooter, but ammo is costly and reloading will set you back the going rate for bullets.
The game opens with a facile arcade sequence in which you aim at descending money bags to accumulate bounty money. The amount collected will be used to buy bullets and horses and pay off fines. This kind of thing departed gracefully from computer games eons ago, and for Ultimate to resurrect it is unforgivable.
After this irrelevance we pass to the game proper, and immediately we are in known territory. The sheriff stands outside the jail, and the touch of a joystick sends him scurrying up, down, left or right. To the left of the action screen is a Wanted poster, with the current baddie and reward displayed.
Stetson hats indicate the number of lives remaining - you start with three - and below them is the amount of bounty money you hold. A gun chamber shows how much ammunition you have left, and this is reloaded automatically when empty. Bottom right is the 'telegram', which lists the going prices of bullets, steeds and fines.
Anyway, enough of the finer details and on to the action. Doing your best Gary Cooper you stride forth from your sheriff's office and encounter fairly rapidly the hazards of the town. No - not the rampaging outlaws, but the honest, god-fearing citizens themselves, who wander aimlessly bumping into anything in their path. Collision with one means a life lost and $150 fine deducted from your bounty. A nice touch is that of the hats flying up and coming to rest where the hapless townsfolk once stood.
Pretty soon you'll chance upon what at first glance seems to be an irate gunslinger - hopping about waving his shooter rather dangerously. After you've filled him full of lead you belatedly realise that the ex-cowboy was an excitable innocent bystander pointing in the direction of the nearest baddie. Godammit, another $150 lost.
With the aid of other helpful citizens you'll eventually run into Buffalo Bill, the first of your wanted men. Don't wait for him to fire - quickly plug him one. The game now moves into fast draw mode, and the screen changes to a head-on view of the gunslinger who, even as you pull back the trigger on your trusty Kempston, is peppering the screen with bullet holes. If you get to him first you get the reward - $350 - and return to the main game in search of Billy the Kid, your next villain, with $700 on his head.
And so it goes.
Oh yes, Panto. Remember that decaying horse carcass you avoided earlier, thinking it to be another bit of background colour, like the cacti and the pebbles? Try stumbling into it and - Geronimo! you've got yourself a gen-u-whine pantomime horse, capable of great speed and, even more interesting, the ability to lay waste half the town's population without losing Sheriff Quickdraw a single life (though he does, unfortunately, have to cough up the fines).
I got quite carried away with ol' Panto, and galloped about the streets leaving a wake of empty ten-gallons behind me. It was more fun than searching for Billy the Kid, any road. The cassette inlay instructions - almost comprehensible for once - recommended Panto for pursuing mounted bandits, if you find any.
In the end, what have you got? Gunfight at the almost-OK Corral or Bad Day at Black Rock? Gunfright is good - it's difficult, attractive, amusing and even passably addictive - but for Ultimate it's not good enough. It gets four stars, because Ultimate has yet to release anything which isn't value for money, and maybe it'll win over some arcade converts. But as for me, pardner, ah'll jes hang around these here parts a mite longer for that there Cyberun, dang-nabbit.
Wild Bill Scolding
Joystick: Kempston, Sinclair, cursor
Opening arcade sequence
Shootout with Buffalo Bill