Biggles is a game I have vague memories of playing on my Sinclair ZX Spectrum as a child - I do not quite recall what I was meant to be doing, all my 8-year-old self knew was that Biggles was the hero and he was saving the world from an evil empire. The concept of the character and his adventures were lost on me until high school, and I never heard of the film until my college years.
Biggles is a movie tie-in videogame originally developed for the Commodore 64 in 1986 by Dalali Software and published by Mirrorsoft.
This game is based on a little-known science fiction/action film entitled Biggles: Adventures in Time, starring actor Neil Dickson as
WW1 hero Captain James “Biggles” Bigglesworth and loosely based on characters created by author W E Johns.
The film, which can be best described as a low-budget amalgamation of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future, was not a great success but it found a new life on home video and television airings, while the game was ported over to the Amstrad CPC and Sinclair ZX Spectrum computers. For the purpose of this review, I will be playing the C64 version, as it is the lead platform.
This game, rather unusually for its era, is divided roughly into two (2) self-contained halves, and each half invokes a different style of gameplay. For the first half, which would take up Side 1 of the original cassette and floppy disk releases, the game is divided into a trio of loosely connected minigames, each one based on a key scene from the film.
The second half is on Side 2 of the cassette/disk, and is only accessible with a password given upon successful completion of the first half. In both halves, the player can press F1 to quit at any time and F7 to pause and resume the game.
This is Side 1 of the cassette/disk, and is composed of three (3) stages (see the screenshots below):
Stage 1: Biplane Action
This stage is set in 1917. Biggles (in the blue WW1-era biplane), must locate and photograph a German secret weapon whilst avoiding enemy gunfire and encounters with Erich von Stahlhein (in the red biplane) – use the joystick to move, press and release the fire button to shoot and hold down the fire button to drop bombs. Bombing an ammunition depot will grant the player two (2) bombs.
Stage 2: In the Thick of It
This stage is also set in 1917. Biggles must now find the secret weapon’s testing site whilst avoiding the German army – as the level progresses, he can climb down into trenches with the use of ladders, which is safer.
However, he will eventually be forced out of cover to continue his mission – use the joystick to move, press and release the fire button to shoot and hold down the fire button to throw a grenade. Grenades can be picked up in the trenches. Enemies in turrets can only be killed with grenades but the player must be perfectly aligned on the same axis AND throw the grenade at the correct distance, as they have a fixed range and trajectory.
Stage 3: Rooftop Pursuit
This stage takes place in 1985. In keeping with the film’s plot, Biggles (yellow) and his “Time Twin” James Ferguson (green) must escape to safety by hijacking a helicopter which will allow them to return to 1917. The player is unarmed for this level and must avoid patrolling police officers (and eventually, police snipers) – use the joystick to move the currently selected character.
Hold down the fire button and press Down on the joystick to switch between Biggles and Ferguson (the currently active character will be standing). Press Fire when running towards a ledge to jump, but you MUST time it perfectly or Biggles/Ferguson will fall to their death.
The stages are nonlinear – if the player dies on one stage, then a cutscene will occur and they will be taken to the next stage, chosen randomly by the computer. Each “objective icon” in the heads-up display or HUD (biplane, igloo, helicopter) will show signs of damage in the form of bullet holes with each life lost. The player has approximately four (4) lives for each stage, and due to the random-access nature of this section of the game, they can theoretically have up to a dozen lives depending on the order of the levels visited. When ANY of the icons are fully destroyed, that icon will disappear and the game will end.
This occupies Side 2 of the cassette/disk and can only be accessed with a password given upon completion of the minigame trilogy which composes Side 1.
When the player has entered the correct password, they will be taken to the final stage of the game, which resembles a rudimentary helicopter-based flight simulator.
Stage 4 (Final Stage): Destroy the Weapon!
This last level places more of an emphasis on skill, speed and strategy as opposed to flat-out arcade action. The objective of this stage involves escorting Biggles’s allies to key points on the map (visible by pressing the M key, while the S key toggles the music on/off). The joystick is used to fly the helicopter, while the fire button is used for interacting with key characters and selecting supplies and provisions.
The ultimate goal of this stage is to acquire the right combination of equipment necessary in order to destroy the secret weapon, in addition to discovering the weapon’s ultimate location. Once found, Biggles must fly to the weapon’s location and destroy it with his high-tech arsenal.
This section is not nearly as enjoyable as its predecessor due to its slower pace and downright ambiguity (the manual does not state the objectives – this player had to find out the goals through trial and error) as well as the extreme difficulty (the helicopter can be destroyed in a single shot from enemy gunfire, resulting in an automatic game over).
The game’s title screen is amazingly colourful and detailed, and the HUD for both halves is well-drawn and even well-animated, which is a surprise considering the limited 8-bit technology of the C64 computer. The cutscene the player gets when losing a life is also a nice touch, sadly absent from the Spectrum and CPC ports (presumably due to technical limitations of those machines).
The game’s graphics are very evocative of a typical action game for the C64, utilising the computer’s muted colour palette to its full potential. While the CPC port would utilise more vibrant colours and the Spectrum version would be largely monochromatic, the original Commodore 64 version of this game benefits from the extra usage of colour and smooth animation thanks to the computer’s hardware sprites and scrolling capabilities, making it VERY appealing to the eyes. The characters are clearly marked and easily identifiable.
The sound is another one of the game’s strengths – the in-game music for the first half of the game is an original composition by the late great Ben Daglish, while the music heard on the title screen and during the second half of the game is an 8-bit rendition of the film’s theme song, “Do You Want to Be a Hero?” by Yes singer Jon Anderson. The sound effects are also cathartic and pleasing to the ears, and they all sound (for a computer from the 1980s) like what they are supposed to represent, all thanks to the power of the SID (Sound Interface Device) chip.
The controls are polarising, depending on which part of the
game you are playing. While the first half is smooth and responsive, the second half is sluggish and stiff (although this could be due to the first-person view and attempt at 3D graphics, which is the C64’s main weakness due to its slower processor when compared to its contemporaries).
However, to the game’s credit, the controls in the first half of the game are easy to work out with minimal fuss. It is a shame that the second half could not have such silky smooth controls – maybe a 2D overhead perspective would have been more within the C64’s capabilities.
The gameplay for the first half varies in difficulty because the game seemingly chooses nearly every variable, including the difficulty, enemy AI, enemy placement, checkpoint placement, etc. largely at random – you could have an easy playthrough on your first turn and a sadistically difficult playthrough on your next turn.
The second half is just too hard, even for the most experienced of players, and is generally not that fun to play. The ending sequence is also a major letdown.
Biggles is an above-average game based on an above-average movie, which is typical of the era.
It shows promise and there is definitely some hidden potential, but the questionable programming is the game’s main weakness, along with its lack of consistency. It is a game worth looking into but it is not something most players will come back to, regardless of whether or not they have completed it.
Not really a must-own except for only the most dedicated fans of the Biggles character or for fans of the 1986 movie.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.
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