Sunday, 15 May 2011

Cray-5 (ZX Spectrum)

I really, really wanted to fall in love with Cray-5. It's got all the necessary ingredients to make a great game and ticks all my personal must-have boxes. Top quality, modern pixel art and audio - check. Exploratory shoot 'em up with a large game map - check. Sci-Fi setting with a heavily clichéd background story - check. Robots to blow up, jet-pac's (sic) and an insane computer to shut down - check, check, check. All of which makes it so much more of a shame that the game design is left firmly set back in 1987.

Set on board a colony ship destined to populate new worlds in the far reaches of the galaxy, your mission comes to an abrupt stop when one of the craft’s reactors is hit by an asteroid - causing a massive radiation leak and damaging the ship's main computer, the Cray-5 (this kind of thing always happens to me, natch). The damaged computer has initiated the ship's self-destruct sequence (why would a colony ship even have one of these?), so IT IS UP TO YOU™ to save yourself, your fellow colonists and indeed humankind by safely shutting the thing down.

Sadly, turning the Cray-5 off and back on again isn't just a matter of holding down CTRL+ALT+DEL. For some insane reason, the only access to the Cray-5 is via a treacherous maze of hazard-filled tunnels and hundreds of locked doors (the keys to which have been distributed in the most unlikely of places). It doesn't end there either; to make matters worse, all of the ships maintenance droids have gone bat-shit crazy and are attacking everything that moves. And who is ultimately to blame for all this mess? You, the computer's lead designer.

Sounds great fun, doesn't it? Well, it should be, yet unfortunately some poor design decisions really let the game down - but before we go into that, lets have a bit of history lesson, shall we?

Cray-5 is actually an unofficial Spectrum port of an 1987, Spanish Amstrad CPC exclusive title by Toposoft. For those of you old enough to remember, back in the late 1980's massive explore 'em ups were all the rage, with Hewson's 1989 'smash hit' Stormlord being the most ludicrous, with it's rock hard gameplay, tight time limit, inability to backtrack and instant-fail if you didn't collect all the fairies you were supposed to rescue. God damn, we liked our games hard back then... or did we? Although praised highly by the press at the time, I think you'd be hard pushed to find anyone these days who can honestly say "oh yeah, I love my games to be near impossible to beat and have all the annoyances of the explore 'em ups of old". Yet, this is exactly what we have with Cray-5.

So what exactly is wrong with it? Well first of all, it's all one large map or level, so there's no saving your progress mid way through the game - the designers really expect you to knuckle down and go through it all in one sitting. Then there's the locked doors... wow, if there's one thing I hate about exploratory games it's having to open umpteen doors in a row, finding a key to another part of the map behind each one (and you can only carry one at a time to boot). I wouldn't be so annoyed if the map or layout made any sense, but in Cray-5 logical design is thrown out the window. Also, I found it highly irritating that it wasn't made clear exactly what the doors looked like. I mean, some doors really do look like doors (the green ones for example), but then others look deceptively like walls and to add to the confusion further there are walls that look like doors as well... GRRRNNNGHH.

I'm not even going to talk about the near-impossible-to-navigate-past magnets and deadly wall/spike combinations.

Retroworks really missed an opportunity here to make a great, story driven Metroidvania 8-Bit adventure. The engine is pretty solid and I genuinely enjoyed zooming around on my jetpack and killing the various robots on each screen. It's just a shame they felt the need to ruin all the good parts by creating a game that focuses more on moving keys around (boring) than actually exploring, activating computer consoles and blowing stuff up (fun). Perhaps it's just a matter of personal taste, but regretfully, as far as I'm concerned Cray-5 is definitely not greater than the sum of it's parts.

Download it here (from the Retroworks website).
Run it using Spectaculator (shareware) or Klive (freeware).
2 out of 5