"Provides at least 500 per cent of your recommended daily intake of laser-based alien extinction" goes the rather amusing tagline of this excellent remake of the 1983 ZX Spectrum classic. They should have probably added: "and about 1000 per cent of your nostalgia requirements for the month" for Jetpac Refuelled is pure, deep-brain primal scream therapy for anyone who was born in the '70s and grew up discussing the finer points of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum in the playground.
Unlike all those arcade classics that keep cropping up on Live Arcade, Jetpac is one of those games that practically every game-obsessed Speccy owner played to death. Trips to the arcade were a luxury, and you might have had enough spare change to see you through a handful of games of, Donkey Kong, Gorf and Ladybug if you were lucky, but you could never just play them relentlessly (unless you were rich, in which case well done you). Owning a rubber keyed Spectrum in 1983 allowed you the luxury of being able to just play and play and play until your wore out Q, A, O, P and Space. It was an endless diet of Chuckie Egg, Manic Miner, and most definitely Jetpac. All three were just as good as the games in the arcade, we'd tell ourselves. We were probably right.
Sounds of the suburbs
Like all the early Ultimate Play The Game titles, Jetpac had the kind of arcade immediacy that made them instant hits with the wide-eyed button pressing youth. To a soundtrack almost certainly including Temptation, Relax, Wings of a Dove, Blue Monday and This Charming Man, you'd guide Jetman around a single-screen wraparound environment, reassembling three parts of a space craft, gathering fuel, gunning down relentless waves of aliens, picking up bonuses and then roaring off into space. Simple.
But inherent fuel economy issues in 1980s space craft (ahem) forced you to land and repeat the whole fuel gathering exercise again on another planet, albeit one populated by different life form: spiky ones, bubble-like ones, hovering fighter planes and others that fitted nicely into the limited graphical capabilities of Sir Clive's 16 kilobyte groove machine. Maybe the workaholic Stamper brothers just rolled dice to decide which creatures to include. It's as good an explanation as any.
Four levels on, you'd inexplicably have to piece together another space craft and do the whole thing again. And so on for 16 levels, until you either ran out of lives or warped back to the start. Ł5.50 didn't buy you an awful lot of gameplay back in those days, but no-one was complaining, because - at the time - this was, without question, one of the best games around for home computers (and probably one of the most pirated, too...). It was a game that immediately established Ultimate as the game developer to watch, and began an unbroken run of wonderful Spectrum games over the next couple of years before the Stampers became obsessed with the potential of the NES.
Back to the old house
But now the Stampers are outtahere those now formally in charge of Rare's output (i.e. Microsoft) clearly realise the potential that Xbox Live Arcade offers, and maybe their departure has helped cleared the way to revisit some of its former glories.
And if this cut-priced offering is anything to go by, it's a good decision to go back to square one for inspiration. Sure, Jetpac Refuelled won't go down as the longest lasting game ever to hit the Live Arcade (it never was, let's face it), but it's a sympathetic reworking that stands out as one of the better examples of retro grave-robbing we've seen. For a start, the main part of the package is - for once - the remake, with the retro original tucked away for mere curiosity value (but with its own leaderboard, happily).
Set across a pretty exhausting 128 levels, the premise is, refreshingly, unchanged. Once again, it's a case of gathering up three bits of a spacecraft, dropping them into place, and scooping up six blocks of fuel as the rain down from above. The controls might have a little more inertia than the original, and the laser beam weapon can now be powered up multiple times, but the core gameplay remains unaltered in every way that matters. Unquestionably the best thing about this remake is the visual makeover the game's been given, complete with delightful explosive effects (particularly the screen wobbling smart bomb), a scalable widescreen play field that dynamically zooms in and out as you hover around the level, and alien character design completely in keeping with Ultimate's unique cover art style of 1983 (think Cookie and Pssst!). All retro heads will appreciate the fact that no-one's messed with the formula, but improved it in ways that make it an enormous amount of fun 24 years on.
Eventually, of course, the game starts to become incredibly repetitive. Just like the original did. But while the original had the decency to put a halt to the fun after 16 levels, this goes on long after you've stopped caring. 128 levels sounds like pretty good value for the 400 point price tag, but most just are simply a repeat of what you've already played, possibly with the platforms arranged slightly differently, or a more insane concentration of enemies.
Them were rotten days
There's always the online multiplayer mode, of course. In this mode you have to compete one-on-one in a race to build and refuel your craft before your opponent. Playable over 5, 10, 15 or 20 minute matches, it's fun for a few goes, but a little bit too random by nature to hold your interest for very long. The fact that you merely have to race for fuel, rather than, say, pay attention to your life counter can make it less about skill, and more about where you happen to be on the screen when the fuel falls out of the sky. It can get pretty annoying quite quickly.
Other than that, you can remind yourself where it all began for the Stampers with a faithful replication of the Spectrum original - the very first Speccy title to appear on Live Arcade if memory serves. Suffice to say, it's an absolutely spot-on port, complete with original loading screen, colour clash, farting sound effects and good old fashioned one-hit death playability. You'll have to complete all 16 levels to get an achievement, mind you, which is a lot tougher than my 10 year old self remembers it being.
So there you go: a cheap, but rather lovely remake of the simple shooter that kicked off Rare's legacy. It's a wonderfully playable link to UK gaming's past, and well worth the 400 points Microsoft's charging for it, but way too repetitive to keep you amused for long. At the very least, check out the trial version and decide for yourself.