There is no arguing that (along with the Atari 400/800 series) during its short commercial life the Amstrad CPC was the underdog of the 8-Bit computers. It might have had an excellent and vibrant palette and some interesting screen modes, but the 3rd party game support was very poor and many of the official arcade conversions were (quite frankly) shit in comparison to the C64 - and in some cases even worse than on it's sister machine, the humble ZX Spectrum.
Over the years I've generally ignored the machine - the CPC games I recall playing at friends houses back in the early 90's were so dreadful that I just assumed the Amstrad itself was incapable of delivering an arcade quality experience. However, back in 2007 I was forced to readdress my opinion when Axelay released his amazing (and later 128KB enhanced) horizontal shooter Star Sabre.
The killer-app that Sir Alan Sugar's contribution to the home computer market never had, Star Sabre won universal acclaim across the retro-homebrew community, attracting new and old gamers alike with its high-quality presentation and arcade-shmup action. Then in 2010, Axelay released a second grade-A title in the form of the future-proof score attack arena shooter Dead on Time (...and yes, this review is a little late).
Released by retro publisher Psytronik on cassette (or available for free download), Dead on Time is something of a rarity; we don’t often see modern arena shooters on any 8-Bit platform, let alone the comparatively ignored CPC - and the very fact that DoT is a great game to boot makes it even more special. At heart, the game is a simple shoot ‘em up - in the default arcade mode you start the game with the 30 second timer counting down and earn valuable time by collecting the capsules dropped by destroying waves of enemies. Collect three capsules of the same colour in a row and you initiate an 10-second ‘bullet field’, during which point you can absorb enemy flak to gain yet more time. Sounds complicated? Well, it is, but it’s also hell of a lot of fun.
Instead of using lives, being hit by a bullet or enemy drone eats away seconds from the clock - so to begin with players will find themselves repeatedly thrown back to the menu screen within moments of starting the game. However, with a little practice on the Score Challenge mode (and plain luck) it is possible to stay alive in the arena for longer periods, especially when you get to grips with using the bullet field.
Starting with simple waves of coloured drones, it isn’t long before the screen is invaded by a wider range of aliens, including the evil splitters that divide into three smaller ships when shot. Thankfully, the control method works pretty well (holding fire locks the facing direction of your ship, although you still have free eight-way movement), so you never feel as though it is the game to blame for your deaths, and I found that I improved a little every time I played, both lasting longer and scoring higher.
For what on the surface looks like a simple game, DoT offers a lot for novice and experienced shmup players alike. Arcade mode is certainly aimed more at veterans of the genre, whereas the Caravan-style score attack mode will provide newcomers with over four minutes of practice time, or a separate challenge in its own right (depending upon how you choose to play it). As with Axelay’s previous release, the graphics and design are of a particularly high standard and the exceptional music and effects sound like they’re straight from an 1980’s coin-op.
I sincerely regret not playing Dead on Time earlier, and I certainly will no longer make any assumptions about the CPC’s gaming prowess (or lack of). Axelay’s latest offering shows that in the hands of an expert, the CPC is capable of giving even modern arcade shooters a run for their money...
Download it here (from the Axelay’s website).
Run it using WinAPE (freeware).