When Sensible Software developed the Outlaw published Shoot’ Em-Up Construction Kit back in 1987, it brought a whole new range of tools to the bedroom coding scene. While many SEUCK releases have been derided for their limited scope and generic gameplay over the years, there’s a few people who have constantly pushed the kits limitations. One of those men is Alf Yngve. Starting back in the early 90’s, his series of COPS games deservedly had many plaudits amongst players and pundits alike and in 2013, Psytronik Software released all of the games as the Ultimate Cops collection, with new front-ends and enhancements.
Starting with the first instalment, it’s easy to see why the series developed such a following. Featuring as part of Megatape 35 of Zzap64 issue 89 back in October 1992, Cops brought refined 1 or 2 player arcade action, standing out in a glut of mediocre Public Domain games that normally accompanied the sellotape of said cover tapes in the later years of the Commodore 64 press.
Very much a product of the nineties, the storyline features protagonists Mike ‘Mad Dog’ McTavish and Singh ‘Big Bang’ Kapoor as cops in Euro-City, a sprawling metropolis that is riddled with with crime and corruption, that has subsequently turned into a war zone. And in time honoured tradition, only these two cops can take it back.
The linear vertical scrolling won’t give you the freedom of say Rambo: First Blood Part II, but it does mean the action stays focused within its confines, with twitch gameplay that keeps you on a state of high alert. Avoiding bikes that careen past at speed, wayward bullets and men in trench coats who jump out of bushes, things that bode well in real life, especially with the latter, means you will rarely pause for breath. Except when you die of course and you will be doing plenty of that, although scoring more points will result in more lives, assisting you in taking out the scum. Cops is difficult but has that ‘one more go’ factor which defines the appeal of the series. While some enemy placements are a little bit mischievous, any initial frustration is short-lived as the gameplay never lets up.
Graphically it’s very impressive considering its origins. Chunky sprites and some impressive background art gives it a professionalism sorely lacking from most SEUCK releases. There is the occasional slow down and sprite flicker during it’s more intense moments as you navigate the hordes of gangsters. Controls are responsive with shooting feeling accurate, which is all well and good considering some of the quick reflexes required at certain points.
And then there’s the music. Admittedly, I’m a big fan of Richard Bayliss’ work, who’s also responsible for the front-end code and enhancements, and feel his compositions across his entire portfolio are some of the best to grace the C64. The high energy tunes not only complement the on-screen action, it drives it, giving the game a real feeling of momentum.
While the original Cops isn’t perfect, it’s certainly a lot of fun, especially in 2 player mode, and it laid the foundations for a series that only got better as it went on… mostly.
The sequel, Holiday Cops, burst onto the scene less than a year later, originally featuring on the cover tape of Commodore Force issue 4 in April 1993. Yngve and Bayliss team up with Chris Yates as McTavish and Kapoor return. Our heroes have their relaxing holiday on a Greek Island interrupted by terrorists, which is a good excuse for introducing the inclusion of a hostage mechanic.
Holiday Cops is a slight step back in the series and one might be inclined to the think the curse of the sequel had struck. But the second game is still an enjoyable time as you lay waste to the sun bathing terrorists while bare-footed. The on-rails opening feels a little awkward as you’re forced along a narrow walkway while enemies pepper you with bullets from boats. If you play as McTavish, the limited range of your weapon means you won’t be able to take them out, although Kapoor’s longer range, slower rate of fire RPG will do the job.
The more open level design of it’s predecessor has been broken up by smaller, multiple paths, with the gameplay feeling slightly imbalanced as a result, especially if you play this as a one player experience. More environmental obstacles also break up the flow, with getting stuck on closely placed cobbles or trees proving infuriating at the times you need to be mobile the most.
As per the original scoring system, killing as many enemies as possible grants you extra lives. As mentioned earlier, hostages are present which grant you a big points bonus before they turn into a big pair of candy lips. This makes planning your route on your playthroughs integral to progression in order to maximise your life count, adding a little extra consideration to the running and gunning.
Music by Richard Bayliss is again of a great standard. The simple yet melodic tunes are a step up from the original, providing an arcade feel with enough variation to feel fresh throughout multiple runs.
Holiday Cops has to be commended on trying to mix up a winning formula with a different approach to level design but in doing so, it disrupts the fluidity of the gameplay. It’s still a great game in the series, but one that is overshadowed by its successors.
COPS III AND COPS FIGHT BACK
If Cops and Holiday Cops’ storylines were the epitome of a late 80’s/early 90’s action movie, the story to Cops III: Cops, Robbers and Dinosaurs, is like a B-movie straight out of Troma’s vault. McTavish and Kapoor have been given desk duty upon their return from the Greek incident and on Christmas Eve the Mafia, Neo-Nazis and religious fundamentalists have launched simultaneous strikes on Euro-City landmarks. Even a dual-wielding, portly Adolf Hitler makes an appearance. But the hokey storyline gives the cops crew an excuse to visit more locales, meaning there’s a lot more diversity to the environments.
Originally bundled with Archetype and released by Psytronik, the game was created around the same time as the release of Jurassic Park, with Yngve grabbing a slice of the renewed interest in the prehistoric beasts.
Cops III dispenses with the more confined combat of the previous instalment, returning to the more open play areas of the original. You’ll be shooting your way through banks, army camps, airports and a dinosaur park, where a character from one of Alf Yngve’s previous games makes a not so subtle cameo.
The core gameplay remains intact, with reaction based shooting and dodging around enemies along vertically scrolling levels, that transition into one another, still very much the Cops trademark. However, elements such as the enemy pathing feel more refined and less haphazard, resulting in a more precise, but still challenging experience. Animations and sprite work have received a slight upgrade but with an increased variety of enemies, including the aforementioned dinosaurs. Scrolling also feels a little smoother with less instances of slow down and sprite flicker. Hostages make an appearance again, helping you notch up those extra lives needed to reach the end.
Richard Bayliss’ score feels even more integral in this release with ascending chord structures and harder beats, hinting at the musical style of what was to come in the final episode of the Cops series.
Cops III was a return to form, more ambitious and more optimised, really showing Yngve and Bayliss’ progression as game makers, while pushing the boundaries of what was achievable within the SEUCK genre. The Cops series would take a break and many wondered if we would see another. Thankfully in 2012, work started on Cops: The Final Chapter. Before this though, another was vying to be the next instalment, with the very different Cops Fight Back, which was originally developed in 1994.
Cops Fight Back marked a radical departure for the series, changing the viewpoint and gameplay to a single screen version to something resembling Yngve’s excellent Forgotten Forest. The sprite work is pretty impressive but the gameplay falls short of both Cops and the Forgotten Forest, trying to straddle a line that doesn’t come close to replicating the thrills of either. It’s great that Yngve and Psytronik included it in the bundle, proving to be a short but nice distraction, but it’s clear to see why this didn’t become the official 4th entry and is more of curiosity piece than anything else.
COPS: THE FINAL CHAPTER AND BIKER COPS
Closing the book on the full-games included in the series is The Final Chapter, a heart-racing, multi-load beast that is larger in scope than any of the previous games. A pseudo-interactive intro clearly shows the ambition of the title and jumping into the game proper, it becomes very clear that this was worth the wait.
Taking more inspiration from outlandish B-movie tropes, McTavish and Kapoor on the eve of their retirement have to sort out even more woes in Euro-City. A prison break frees the dangerous Pope, Maledict I, plunging the city into chaos once again. But where the game does depart from its roots, is swapping vertical level design for side-scrolling, breathing new life into the series for its swansong.
As soon as you fire up The Final Chapter, our heroes enter in a convertible, taking out biker punks in a very short on-rails section. But as soon as you jump off, Richard Bayliss’ slow building, techno-infused soundtrack kicks in, giving the already frenetic action an adrenalin shot, letting you know you’re in for something special.
Enemy placement is well thought out, environments feel more organic and the inclusion of power-ups adds an extra dynamic. This is not for the faint of heart though as enemies come thick and fast, proving a real tough, but fair, challenge. Admittedly, I was only able to complete the game without a trainer by using save states but got towards the end of the game without either, and with a lot of persistence.
Once you finish the first half of the game, you’re granted a password to start the second, which is just as relentless, testing your reaction times to the limit, Bayliss’ second in-game composition again proving to be a driving force in your progress. Scrolling is generally very smooth and while some slow down takes a bit of a shine off proceedings, it only goes to show how far their pushing SEUCK. Hostages do return but now with the ability to kill them, and your
chances of completion. Shooting bombs can either facilitate this or the blowing up of enemies, so knowing when to use these becomes a must. This is certainly the most gory entry with enemies being set on fire while alive and bloodied bodies, including a sacrificial baby, all making an appearance as you face-off against the Pope in a final rooftop battle. There is an ending section, including a bonus game but I won’t spoil that.
Cops: The Final Chapter provides a fitting end to the series, combining all of the better elements of the previous games and wrapping them in a larger, more intense experience.
Rounding out the compilation is Biker Cops, a vehicular take on The Final Chapter where you race through the locales of the game, shooting anything that moves. This doesn’t feel like a game in its own right and could be better described as a bonus mode, but its a nice add-on nevertheless.
Ultimate Cops is still available from Psytronik on budget disk and cassette for £6.99
Ultimate Cops is tremendously great value, presenting some of the most enjoyable arcade action on the C64, with The Final Chapter being worth the price of admission alone. It hits all the right notes from the punishing difficulty level to the pulse-pounding music. It’s certainly not flawless, but when it’s firing on all cylinders, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of unadulterated hyper-violence on the system