Gronf Gronf

  • Developer: Creepsoft
  • Publisher: Dinamic Software
  • Release Years: 1989 (ZX Spectrum, MSX, Amstrad CPC), 1990 (Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64)
  • Available On: ZX Spectrum, MSX, Amstrad CPC, Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64
  • Genre(s): Run and Gun, Sci-fi

While it’s always good and fun to know a lot about a particular subject, sometimes it’s worth donning the hat of ignorance, the cap of curiosity, the helmet of incomprehension, whatever made up noggin protection you prefer, and jumping headfirst into something you don’t know a thing about. That was me with this post because I have meager experience with the ZX Spectrum, so much so that I wasn’t really sure where to begin! It’s an incredibly important machine within the history of gaming, being the microcomputer that appealed to the British masses with its approachability, affordability, and flexibility and would go on to be a formative experience for plenty of gamers in the UK. It even got Clive Sinclair knighted, which I’m pretty sure is something you can’t say about any other console or computer out there! If you look up articles, YouTube comments, blog posts, or tweets about the ZX Spectrum, you’ll find people reminiscing about just how revolutionary it was and how it informed their careers and passion for gaming, which is really touching stuff! As an American who grew up in the 90s, I can’t provide you with any of that, unsurprisingly. What I can provide you with, though, is the polar opposite perspective – what is it like to play the ZX Spectrum for a (mostly) clueless American in 2022, decades after the heyday of the little computer that could? Well, to put it simply upfront, it’s pretty interesting, and I was pleasantly surprised by today’s game for a variety of reasons! I’ve always found the ZX Spectrum to be a fascinating thing and this experience has only reaffirmed that thought. I’m an absolute novice with the platform, but I think I understand the appeal!

Today’s game wasn’t my first experience with ZX Spectrum games, I should clarify; having bought a Xbox One mainly for Rare Replay, I used that as an opportunity to check out some of Rare’s games that passed me by (as well as finally conquer Jet Force Gemini with a friend!), since I had only really played their most popular console titles up to that point. The ZX Spectrum games on there were quite a rollercoaster of emotions for me, I’ll say! Jetpac immediately clicks for me and is always fun (probably in part due to playing it a ton to get past that one part in Donkey Kong 64!), and I found Atic Atac to be an ambitiously well done take on Zelda-style dungeon crawling a couple of years before Nintendo’s game changer hit the scene. Gunfright, while not always fun per se, is one I found admirable for its more methodical take on the wild west, having players track down their targets in an open environment while shifting between first person and isometric perspectives depending on the situation. In contrast to those, I couldn’t get along with Lunar Jetman, Knight Lore, or Underwurlde at all. Their controls, steep level of difficulty, and complete lack of direction sound like something I’d be really into today, honestly, but I guess at the time I just wasn’t in the mood. Knight Lore in particular I see commonly cited as one of the computer’s best games, so I probably should give that one another shot someday…

Beyond that, I’ve played Eric and the Floaters (love that name!) as part of my still-ongoing exploration of the Bomberman series that I’m working on, and that’s really it for my experience with the ZX Spectrum. I was actually going to play today’s game on the Amiga, but as I was doing some preliminary research, I noticed a lot of people swearing by the ZX Spectrum version as the best one. At first, I wasn’t so sure as to why – those Amiga visuals and sound were looking and sounding pretty dang good – but as I watched this handy comparison video, I started to see where people were coming from. The Amiga version may look like an upgrade, but it’s quite a bit slower than the 8-bit versions and seems to be lacking in general oomph through an absence of impactful sound effects. It also goes for a brighter atmosphere compared to the dark and ominous nature of the ZX Spectrum and MSX versions. It’s not bad or anything, but I think one of the game’s greatest strengths is how alien and hostile its world feels, so that was enough to convince me to try this version instead, to say nothing of the faster action. In fact, that faster action is part of what makes this game so impressive – this baby has parallax scrolling, even!

The border at the bottom of the screen does a great job of adding to the dark, alien tone of the game

Though I’m no authority on the platform, it’s pretty obvious that Astro Marine Corps is on another level as a late release on the platform. Fast action, parallax scrolling, palpable atmosphere that does a wonderful job of setting the tone, large sprites that frequently make you go “what the heck is that!?”, I imagine anybody who played this back in the day would have been super impressed! And it was all done by just two people – Pablo Ariza and Jose A. Martin. The former handled programming and graphics, and the latter handled the music. It’s amazing what two people can do with complementary skill sets, huh? Having done a bit of research on the two, it seems that their work is very highly regarded, with sites like Computer EmuZone and HobbyConsolas citing games the two worked on (like Rescate Atlantida and Risky Woods) as some of the best Spanish games ever released. I can see why; that Rescate Atlantida basically looks like an underwater take on the Blaster Master concept, and that’s awesome! Going by Mobygames, they had assistance with the Amiga version and the Commodore 64 version doesn’t have their names in the credits at all, which seems strange, but the MSX version was all them as well. I feel like it’s not a coincidence that the favored versions (going by YouTube comments, anyway) are the ZX Spectrum and MSX ones! The dynamic duo would go on to do Hammer Boy, Mega Phoenix, Premier Manager 98, and PC Futbol 6.0 together before Pablo Ariza seemingly bowed out of the industry (again, going by Mobygames credits), but Jose A. Martin stuck around to work on a couple of things he didn’t, including an Amstrad CPC game called Outlaws that was made in 2016 for a game creation contest and was declared the winner, too. I think it’s amazing that these older computers can inspire such passion in people that they’re still making games for them decades later, and going by this game, anyone who has Jose A. Martin working on their game’s music is in good hands!

AMC (at least the disk version I played) immediately presents you with an interesting choice: AMC 1 or AMC 2. In case all the cool technical prowess wasn’t enough, they (technically) stuffed two games in here too! Looking at it from a modern perspective, it’s not really two games so much as it is two levels/missions in one package, but I imagine the prospect of being handed two challenges to master for the price of one was pretty appealing at the time. In AMC 1, your mission is to find the ship of the Deathbringers, a presumably villainous alien group of some kind, and AMC 2 asks you to commit some regicide and slay the Great Alien King on the Deathbringers’ homeworld. Though you’re given the choice between the two, you’re clearly intended to start with AMC 1 for multiple reasons. Aside from being chronologically sensible, the first mission is much easier than the second one and serves as a better introduction to how the game works. In a clever twist, access to AMC 2 is actually locked by a password earned at the end of the first mission. It’s easy to look that password up now if you want, but at the time, this must have been such a tease! I imagine this being the kind of thing that would totally gnaw away at a kid like a wrapped Christmas present put out early. They know it’s there and that it has what they want, but they can’t open it until the time is right. They can guess all they want and beg for the answer, but nothing’s gonna change until that time comes. I really like stuff like this because it makes it feel like you’ve earned something, you know? Your skill, practice, and persistence has paid off and now you get to learn a secret and enjoy an experience that loads of other people have no idea about like you’re part of a special club. I bet the one kid on the playground who got the password first seemed pretty cool to their peers!

Power-ups are somewhat uncommon in AMC 1, but they’re always useful

At first, AMC presents itself much in the way that Contra does, with the battlefield taking place on a green field under the cover of night. All you need to do is march forward and fire your gun with confidence and you’ll make it past your foes with ease. A power-up appears shortly in front of you and makes your life even easier. Maybe it’s more grenades, maybe it’s a forcefield, or maybe it’s a 3-way spread shot, it’s a nice boon regardless! Contra did something like this to give the player a chance to grasp the basics and make them feel cool like the inspiration for the game’s two protagonists, Arnold Schwarzenegger as he appeared in Predator. AMC does it to lull the player into a false sense of security. Contra inevitably comes to a similar conclusion, you can’t just let the player win with zero effort, after all, but the two games have very different interpretations of what it means to put a player on edge. In Contra, the first bridge you encounter will explode as soon as you get on it. Knowledgeable players will see it coming and remain on the upper path, whereas new players will be taught a valuable lesson about situational awareness as they now have to traverse a different, more disadvantageous path. AMC wants you to think, “hey, I’m pretty good at this!” as you charge through the alien menace without breaking a sweat, holding down the forward key without the thought of ever stopping crossing your mind, all so they can hit you with one very specific trick. 

GRONF GRONF

All that momentum, all that energy, the power fantasy, swept away like leaves in the wind at that very moment. An enemy you couldn’t see and didn’t stand a chance against chomped you right up and made you look like a fool. Each time you die in AMC, you’ll see some kind of message based on how you died and they make each death enjoyably comedic in the same way that Crash Bandicoot would be years later. Most of these are straightforward proclamations or clever jokes like “No pierdas la cabeza!!” (“don’t lose your mind!!”) when you get your head bitten off, but GRONF GRONF remains mysterious. It’s probably supposed to be the sound of chomping and grinding teeth, but I Googled the heck out of the phrase and couldn’t find anything beyond the words “Grind” and “Grond”, which is some kind of Lord of the Rings meme that I’ve never heard of. This specific taunt stuck with me, not just because of the phrase itself, but because it sets a tone in a way that’s so effective that many games could only dream of. Getting past this creature isn’t difficult, since all you have to do is remember where it is and then jump over it, but from this point on, you know that it could happen again. It could happen in a minute, it could happen in five minutes! Maybe it’ll happen right at the end of the mission or maybe it’ll never happen again, there’s no way to know! Anyone who’s familiar with video games should know that a good developer never lets a good trick go to waste, and so you’ll absolutely be seeing some instant death traps again. AMC 2 is chock full of them to an arguably excessive degree, but AMC 1 sprinkles them in more carefully. The GRONF GRONF fellow shows up again at some point, but there’s also a worm that requires the use of grenades to eliminate (it took me way too long to realize my grenade button wasn’t mapped!) and one particular section that really stands out to me.

Hope you have several grenades for this guy!

Once you get past the GRONF GRONF trap, things get straightforward again. You walk along raised platforms above water, do some more field traversal, and get past that worm I mentioned, but after all that, the game gets real devious once again. You’ll stumble upon soldiers on the battlefield, your comrades in arms, and they’ll be running away from the battlefield. It’s not clear if they’re retreating or were instructed to go elsewhere, but regardless, all you can do is wish them the best as they go on their merry way. That is, until one of them turns into a giant alien and tries to bite your head off! This turns what should be an oasis in the rhetorical desert into something far worse; now, you’ll need to watch each one of the soldiers marching past extremely carefully! Based on my experiments with saving and loading state, the soldiers that turn into aliens are randomized, so it’s very easy to get caught off guard. To make matters even worse, shooting an innocent soldier will deplete your remaining time! While this section can be a proper pain in the rear, since the alien attacks are instant kills (they give you up to 8 units of health in this game, but you’ll rarely get to use them all!), but I really love the tone it establishes. So much of the run and gun genre seeks to empower the player with similar types of power fantasies and make the player feel like a one man army, but AMC turns that idea right on its head. You think you’re getting Predator or the later Rambo movies or something, but it turns out you’re actually getting The Thing in AMC 1 and some good old fashioned cosmic horror in AMC 2!

Once you’ve learned the tricks behind AMC 1, it’s only a matter of time before you finish it. The regular foes don’t put up much of a fight and the boss fight isn’t particularly tricky if you come packing grenades and understand that running away is a viable strategy, not a coward’s way out. In response to this, AMC 2 comes out with the big guns right away. Seconds after starting, you’re barraged by these weird, goopy things that travel across the floor and instantly kill you if you make contact. After that, cannons pop out of the ground and fry you with instant death blasts. If that wasn’t enough, an entire gauntlet of surprise attacks from worms that, you guessed it, instantly kill you if you don’t immediately turn around and blow them up! The planet of the Deathbringers is incredibly hostile and nothing about it works in your favor. Even the act of gathering power-ups works differently here! In AMC 1, power-up containers were just on the ground, as ordinary as can be. In AMC 2, you have to destroy enemies and then pop the containers that drop from their defeat. You can get different weapons on a different planet, including a stronger basic projectile and a coil-like projectile that serves as an attack that can hit enemies on the way back as it retracts, but containers now have an added nasty surprise – green tentacles that’ll pull you in and kill you for daring to open that container! Yeah, AMC 2 really, really is not shy about being mean to the player. It’s ultimately all in good fun, though, since you can learn from it and the game takes less than half an hour for a winning run, so throwing yourself at its many death traps until you surmise the best ways of getting around them doesn’t get frustrating. If this game was an hour long or more, then it might feel pretty dirty, but Creepsoft managed to strike a fine balance between challenge, memorization, and pacing that makes AMC tense and thrilling every time.

AMC 2 gets a little more creative with its level design compared to the first mission, too. After you’ve made it inside the Deathbringers’ base, you get to solve a little door puzzle of sorts. Your path gets blocked by laser fences and you’ll need to navigate through various doors to find the switches to turn them off. It’s very straightforward, but a nice change of pace that also doesn’t have any instant kill traps, surprisingly! It’s also a bit of a calm before the storm that is the final boss. The final boss is an imposing, larger than life mechanical monstrosity of a beast, armed with cannons and a long range retracting projectile similar to yours. The previous boss fights were battles of attrition, requiring you to keep your distance and keep shooting, but this fight requires all of that plus good aim with grenades. I tried just shooting him, but I used up my entire time limit doing so, so I’m going to assume it’s mandatory, which is pretty harsh if you used any grenades prior to this! Still, I really like how the bosses lose body parts as they take damage. You can blast this guy’s head off, but if it falls on you, you’ll die; now that’s a sneaky trick befitting this game! Though there’s not a ton to them, I really appreciated the boss fights as a way to break things up, since I honestly didn’t expect there to be more than one.

Appreciation, respect, and inspiration are all things I feel towards and about Astro Marine Corps. The ZX Spectrum isn’t typically associated with fast paced action games that scroll, oftentimes going for more methodical games that divide the action between discrete screens, but here we have two people who were able to really make the computer sing with technical flourishes abound. A lot of people find games on the platform hard to approach, but if you know what you’re getting into, I think AMC holds up well. It’s definitely not as smooth or as fast as Contra, but I found it to be perfectly playable without any issue. I didn’t grow up with a ZX Spectrum, but I didn’t find it hard at all to get into and get used to; you just have to accept that it’s a bit of a different beast compared to the NES or whatever. I’m sure it helps that I have an affinity towards run and guns in general, but I think people who enjoy seeing consoles and computers pushed to their limits in clever ways will find a lot to like here if they can put themselves outside of their comfort zone. It’s not often you get to see technical achievements like this and it’s important to learn about things that you didn’t grow up with, so if you’re like me and didn’t grow up in the UK, why not give AMC a spin and give yourself a lesson in British microcomputers and in all of the ways that you can get murdered by aliens? And if you did grow up in the UK, you’ll probably want to check this one out if you haven’t already!

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