A shortage of ping-pong rounds is why the Nazis lost the war

spectre logo

Spectre (1994)

It’s a funny old thing, nostalgia. You’ll know at once what I’m talking about if you decide to take a look back at your schooldays; they were pretty great, weren’t they? You forget the blustery early mornings, the near-constant threat of detention, the social pressures and the impending doom represented by exams that we were led to believe were “all-important”.

Instead, we look back on getting one over those the more totalitarian-leaning teachers, bullying the nerds (if you were a jock, of course; actual nerds not applicable here) or those times when someone made the whole assembled class laugh with a witty repartee that you edited in your mind to attribute to yourself.  John Hughes, God rest the poor old bugger, had a few ideas on the dangers of thinking everything about our formative years was rosy… in The Breakfast Club at least. Although that’s not to say Cameron did so well out of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off either, despite his initially suicidal overconfidence.

In any case, it all serves as a reminder to us that nostalgia is a pretty myopic thing. So when I take a look at my now jaundiced SNES and bask in the memories of its glorious library of games and all of the wonderful things it can still do, subconsciously I am willfully and gleefully ignoring the lesser known stinkers that we had to suck up, at a time when companies saw fit to take a bite out of the big tasty SNES pie by defecating their latest “software” “video game” down our radical, way past cool mid-90s throats. I could probably coax myself into a purely verbally-induced orgasm just by talking about all of the wonderful whimsy that the SNES and its staggeringly good library of games was able to provide. But there’s an old gaming proverb out there, I’m sure there is, mandating that where gold there be, so too must there be clag.

So we look at Spectre, an otherwise forgettable little piece of bile that disgraced our screens in Year of our Lord 1994. First and foremost, I’m bewildered as to who could actually be the target audience for this tripe. Even guff like Kirby’s Dream Course had a recognisable Nintendo character bolted onto the front, and we can conclude Pit Fighter was designed to grab the attention of those who loved Street Fighter but had suffered a few too many bangs to the head in their depressing real lives.

But I cannot think of a single reason why anybody, even back then, would have taken a gawk at Spectre, and said “do you know what, even though this magazine I’m browsing through is giddily previewing games like Donkey Kong Country and Super Metroid, I think I’ll get this odd little game about firing ping-pong balls at incandescent trapezoids this Christmas instead”. This is exactly the type of game that your parents or significant other buys you as a mistake, and although you’re kind and canny enough to put on a perfectly rehearsed dump-eating grin, you are absolutely devastated. Inside, you are simply wrecked. Why you?

Alarm bells would be ringing for anybody the very second one flicks their SNES power switch on. This sort of wonky sounding dirge starts playing, and the game gives credit to all manner of futuristically named companies – to wit, we have Cybersoft, Velocity Corp and Synergistic Software. Three megacorporations such as these that obviously specialise in the design and manufacture of terrifying, hulking mechs and Robocops are a bit much for a quaint little SNES shooting game, wouldn’t you think?

What really causes one to worry is the fact that this alleged development company Cybersoft saw fit to include their company address, with even their state zip code, in the intro of the game. Not exactly big time, is it? Before taking a look at a game and savaging or eulogising it, I try to do at least 30 seconds research, to avoid flak from fanboys. Well, I can tell you that this Cybersoft has left the building since 2002 at the earliest, Velocity Corp have to suffer the ignominy of having their link on the Spectre Wikipedia page in red font, and Synergistic Software’s gaming development ethos rapidly came to a head and they now specialise in “custom fit apparel pattern-drafting software” – at least it can be said that they adapted and survived.

That’s an awful lot of teams for a port of a throwaway Apple game, you’d have to say. A pity that they didn’t invest much of their resources in the perfunctory title screen. You’re given three choices: One Player, Two Player and Help. Most unfortunately, pressing Help doesn’t immediately eject the cartridge and prompt a hand to come out of the console that selects a better game. And I really don’t know why they’d bother programming a two-player mode into the game, since anyone who would yearn to play this cack with other people surely actually hasn’t got anybody who they could call a friend (and no, social workers and carers are not your friend).

So we only have the one player mode to fall back on, which brings us to the tank customisation screen. Oh goody, some customisation! That always adds a few layers… assuming the game isn’t criminally hollow – and we all know what they say about assumption. You get the choice of getting your deathtank in Strong, Speedy, Balance or Custom, with each having their own separate Shields, Speed and Ammo rating. You might as well go Balance, because the extremes aren’t pretty: you’ll either be in an Israeli army mantrain held together by chewing gum or a titanium-covered almighty jalopy.

In any case, engaging with the enemy rhombuses and exchanging ping-pong ball fire with them is usually inadvisable. You’ll immediately see what I mean when you begin the first level and your pride and joy Spectre tank poofs into existence. It hits the darkened chessboard floor with an eerily human, tone-setting cry of pain, and deeply depressing music begins to play as you endeavour to steer your hi-tech, geometrically sound Pencil Eraser-cum-Panzer towards enemy Nazis. I’m not sure if they’re Nazis or not, in fact I would doubt it very much given the futuristic setting, but looking at the way they track only you down and relentlessly fire cherries at you, the persecuted minority, you can see why I’d feel tempted make the comparison; our man Godwin at work once again.

Your objective in each level is to potter aimlessly about until you can find five yellow flags. I’m not sure how flags are going to help our doomed war effort, Commander Spectre, unless we decide to throw a few white ones up instead. Your supposedly strengthened tank can’t take too many hits, even with high shields, so fighting tends to be out of the question.

That’s a bit of a shame, isn’t it? A game about tanks blowing each other away, wasted because the best tactic in every level is to preserve yourself for as long as possible and avoid all encounters, because the enemy simply cannot be beat. To drive this point home, there are even warps hidden in levels (and by hidden, I mean hidden unless you somehow manage to coerce your runaway tank into banking left or right instead of directly into the TARDISes and medicine balls that form obstacles in your path), and these warps can bring you as many as five levels forward.

So it’s a tank-fighting game, except you can’t really fight tanks, and you’re driving the equivalent of the jeeps in Command & Conquer versus Mammoth Tanks. Anyway, by this stage, your tank has been vaporised and a surprisingly clear and sombre voice sample confirms your macabre death. It becomes frighteningly clear that the developers or porters or whoever was most responsible for this mess simply didn’t care. And I definitely don’t care either. So why should you care?

08 October 2014

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