A long time ago a man known as Eugene Jarvis created the twin-stick shoot 'em up monster known as Robotron - a shot of digital adrenaline for those whose reflexes and thought processing were close to flawless. Whilst there were many imitators of the game - Robotron itself was inspired by the Commodore PET game Chase - Smash TV is the title that I regard as the game that updated the gameplay and style most successfully, even if (according to KLOV) it was eight years after Robotron that arcade Smash TV was released. Despite the fact that the arcade original was released in 1990 - after the likes of Outrun et al had stormed the arcades - I never had the chance to play it in all it's glory, instead waiting until I would pick up the Commodore 64 version from one of the last stores that stocked C64 games. And that's a good thing, because if - as I did - you don't know how much the arcade original shames this conversion, you'll be happy to fall in love with an incredible shoot 'em up. Though despite it's Robotron-esque focus on shooting before you think, Smash TV is somewhat more considerate an update than you might think, creating it's own premise, environments and overall atmosphere whilst maintaining the "kill 'em all" mentality of it's inspiration to produce the resultant fusion of old-school gameplay with a modern attitude and up-to-date aesthetics. This fusion is arguably strong enough to set Smash TV apart from it's inspiration, and passionate gamers will not want to pick one of the two games as a "favourite", such is the individuality of both of the games...individuality that also shows when you compare Robotron's typical "evil threatening robot scum" storyline with Smash TV's more unique approach (although it could be argued that other forms of media such as the film The Running Man may have conceived the idea of a dangerous game being broadcast live to a large audience before Smash TV did - nevertheless few games since have explored the idea of deadly TV shows: the only one coming to mind being PC curio Devil Inside).
When you ignore the comparisons with Jarvis' masterwork (and even the original arcade version of Smash TV), this game still manages to entertain the passionate shoot 'em up fan. After digesting the polished introduction and admirable loading theme, you are shown the title screen where you can set up your controls - more on this later - and then launch yourself into the game. Unlike Robotron's isolated arenas, Smash TV has interlinked rooms that, whilst still breaking the game up into independent bubbles of action, make each level slightly non-linear, helping to make the game seem more replayable than linear shooters where you are forced along a single route with no arguments. (Of course many pedants will argue that, since you will always end up in the same final room, the game isn't non-linear at all, but the fact is that you can't just go from the start to room 2 to room 3 to room 4 to the guardian; instead you have choices.) These rooms provide Robotron-style periods of blasting, where enemies pile in from all sides and you are forced into a game of survival. And "survival" is the right word, despite the host of the arcade original preaching about the glory of "total carnage". Total carnage is only really possible when you have shot through enough enemies to create a small amount of breathing space so that your character is able to move around a bit more and get into spaces that deliver opportunities to kill enemies that were previously inaccessible. One of the main things the game must be praised for is the way in which, despite all the issues about on-screen sprite limitations and whatnot, it still manages to create an extremely claustrophobic atmosphere, where inaccurate threat prioritisation will result in someone casually walking up behind you and smacking you over the head, costing you another life. Smash TV is somewhat merciful in this respect: unlike more conventional, more pedestrian shoot 'em ups that give you extra lives if you are a really excellent player, Smash TV sees them as less of a luxury and more of a necessity, dishing them out - along with other power-ups - at regular intervals during combat. Admittedly, this could be seen as something it has claimed from it's arcade inspiration - after all, when you are paying for extra credits, it makes the desire for survival even stronger, and this desire justifies the regular appearances of extra lives. Other power-ups are similar to the kind of power-ups that you might find in your typical side-scrolling shoot-'em-up - three-way fire, satellite friends, smart bombs - and there are also cash bonuses to collect after killing enemies, and mines that blow the player up on contact. Naturally, these must be avoided. These offensive power-ups help to give the game an excuse to throw obscene amounts of enemies at the player, and the only times of respite are usually when the player is entering or leaving an arena: otherwise, it is fast, enjoyable blasting.
No matter how you got through the branching level, it will always close down to a single room that leads to the guardian who must be destroyed piece-by-piece, rather than the traditional shoot 'em up guardian formula that sees the player piling bullets into a weak spot until the whole thing explodes. In Smash TV the bosses seem to be a lot more logical; the first and final guardians demanding that the player blow off each limb, and the guardian of the second level "wearing" a protective "shell" around the outer area of the main body, and inviting the player to wear down each of the small pieces of this "shell" until the guardian is destroyed. During these boss battles weapons and pick-ups appear around the play area so as to assist the player's completion of the objective at hand, and once the guardian is destroyed the player can leave the level and get a report on how well - or, conversely, how badly - they did in terms of bonus collection: such a report is sure to please those who are in search of ways to improve their scoring techniques. Also, the sheer scale of the bosses in the boss battles give the battles a sense of claustrophobia not unlike the claustrophobia a player will feel when he or she is cornered by a large group of enemies in one of the levels standard arenas. Aside from the standard arenas filled with enemies and mines (and random spawning weapons) and the boss arenas, the only other area of the gameworld worthy of note is the bonus arena, which is not unlike standard arenas save for a change in aesthetics and opportunities for further score increase through collecting the many prize packages that appear around the arena. After the bonuses have gone, the enemies flood in as normal. Whilst the objective is not that different from the objective found in each of the main rooms, bonus arenas help add a little bit of
variety to a game that shoots first and offers bonuses later.
Where criticism is concerned, Smash TV arguably feels slightly "different" when compared to the arcade version, with it's softer bullet sprites and gunfire sounds, not to mention it's more sanitised death animations: whereas the original had earsplitting gunfire and gory explosions, the Commodore 64 version has less outstanding "phut-phut" sounds and explosions seen in a hundred identikit shoot 'em ups. Whilst most gamers will admit that such presentational differences are a consequence of porting an arcade classic to the ageing C64 these slight differences might be offputting for someone who has memories of the arcade game but little knowledge of the C64's limitations. As well as this, there is little atmosphere where sound is concerned: the music of the arcade original is absent, as are the cheers from the crowd; the latter asset playing a key part in the arcade original's attempt to create the atmosphere of a live television show. It could be argued that without something as simple as a cheering crowd, the player doesn't feel like he or she is participating in a gameshow, and so the entire premise of the game is lost. Cash prizes and bonuses help maintain the atmosphere, but sometimes it just feels like an updated Robotron in terms of objective. The only other real criticism I can make is to do with the omission of the two-player mode, but you soon realise why this is gone when you realise that Smash TV has the most flexible control configuration options I've ever seen in a game. This is arguably what turns Smash TV from an already enjoyable game to a riot of gunfire and reactions where the player is one with the machine and the true "zone" state can be effortlessly achieved...and why? Twin joysticks. Get two responsive joysticks (preferably the same model), slam them on an immovable surface so that the suckers stick and the joysticks don't slide about, and then set up the controller configurations accordingly. As I said, these options are very flexible, allowing you to choose which ports you are firing and moving from, allowing you to mix keyboard movement with joystick fire (or vice versa), and more besides. Whilst the game is playable through the standard configuration of looking and moving with a single joystick, it is much more enjoyable when you are using the twin-stick method, your mind processing all the actions your two hands need to do to get your helpless avatar out of whatever situation he has got himself into. A player can become so focused in manipulating both joysticks in perfect harmony that the flaws of the game - the simpler presentation, the lack of "atmosphere" - are quickly forgotten, since the player's mind is busy making the hands work harmoniously. And, sadly, all of this means that it's best played either on a real Commodore or with an emulator and a dual analogue controller (As an owner of the latter device, I can testify that it works very well, and is much better than using the keyboard). Without these devices to hand, you might want to knock a point off the playability score, as you won't be getting the same astounding experience. You'll merely be getting a great one.
Downloads: Music, Advert
|GRAPHICS - 7/10|
|The graphics do not stun, but they are exceptionally crisp and clean, and even during the more panicked moments of gameplay where there are enemies piling onto the play area, the game still manages to present itself admirably with few graphical glitches. The sanitisation (the lack of bloody) and chunkier bullets might put off fans of the original arcade game, but it is still presented in a tidy and clear manner. The end of level status screens are also clear and informative, with the bonus graph being very precise, and the bosses are suitably impressive, even if they contain little animation.|
|SOUND - 5/10|
|It would have been a bit much to ask if a player were to expect this to have the same presentational quality of the arcade original, but the fact still remains that the arcade original's premise was made believable by it's atmosphere - the noise of the crowd and the host - and so when these things are omitted the game feels slightly empty. As well as the incidental ambience, there is also the aforementioned gunfire, which doesn't sound half as impressive as the loud "bang" effects that made even the default weapon sound incredible. Whilst I admit that replicating such sounds on the humble C64 is probably asking a little much, a fan of the original might be disappointed.|
|PLAYABILITY - 8/10|
|Seven out of ten if you are playing with a single joystick: whilst some might argue that the control restrictions a single joystick puts on the player can make the game a bit more of a challenge because, for example, the player is not able to back away firing, the single joystick method just makes the game feel that little bit more soulless, and there's little to distance it from similar shooters. However, even today twin-stick Smash TV is an excellent experience. Other people might bemoan the game due to the lack of variety, but in a game like this there's little time to think about things like that: it's one of the finest "zone" games out there.|
|OVERALL - 7/10|
|Smash TV is still as playable today as it was when it was released over a decade ago. True, it's not as flawless as the arcade original, and there are better ports of the arcade game available on other platforms, but it's still a frantic, enjoyable game, and the maintenance of high-speed on the C64 must be commended. If you like your shoot 'em ups mindless and frantic, with thought normally reserved for tactics being used to manipulate the twin joysticks in a constantly changing arena of death, you should really give this game a go.|