Eight-bit machines often had a hard time with arcade conversions, so a ZX Spectrum port of 16-bit monster Final Fight could never meet FatNicK’s over-inflated expectations… could it?
By 1991, the ZX Spectrum was in a funny place. Already outmoded by the introduction of 16-bit computers in 1987, the aged 8-bit micro also had to contend with strong sales of games consoles from Sega, Nintendo and Atari.
Yet while cartridges and control pads might have been the future, sales of 8-bit micro computer software were remarkable. He might have taken the world of the Sega Mega Drive by storm, but even the mighty Sonic the Hedgehog was left floundering when put up against budget 8-bit titans like Dizzy.
With sales staying strong, the Spectrum continued to receive ports of the latest arcade games well into the 90s. This posed several technical challenges: back in 1982, the hardware in the Spectrum could already have been described as budget-conscious, but by 1992 it was practically prehistoric. Its simple Z80 processor and 15-colour display were completely unsuitable for the recreation of gameplay experiences designed for multiple CPUS, displays that could handle thousands of colours, and sound setups that featured fancy FM music and oodles of sampled sound effects.
By 1991, successful Spectrum arcade conversions required either a virtuoso level of programming ingenuity, or the decision to leave for a large chunk of the content from the original arcade on the cutting room floor.
Beat ’em up
Any port in a storm
You might think punters like me were idiots for buying these patently unsuitable ports, but you’d be surprised at the number of them that managed to hold their own. I’ve already spoke about the brilliance of Speccy Chase HQ before, and this was joined by the likes of Rainbow Islands, Midnight Resistance and R-Type to create a canon of perfect, age-defying ports.
But even outside this elite list, there were plenty of less remarkable ports that were perfectly acceptable games, so long as you didn’t mind the monochrome graphics. Arcade games may have become increasingly complicated, but Spectrum programmers were able to compensate by deploying increasingly clever techniques to get the most out of the hardware.
Consequently, as I stood in my local Electronics Boutique in early 1992, I had no way of knowing whether or not the tape I was about to purchase – my last ever in a full-price cardboard box, I believe – could deliver on its substantial promise: a home version of impressive Capcom brawler Final Fight.
By 1992, I was already well acquainted with the original Final Fight arcade machine. With games today all looking so incredibly impressive, I sometimes wonder if any of them have the kind of raw visceral impact on my daughter that arcade machines like Final Fight had on me.
It wasn’t that arcade manufacturers weren’t innovative, or failing to coming up with novel gameplay ideas to keep their titles fresh, but the intricacies of gameplay almost always played second fiddle to the physical impact of the arcade machine itself: the titanic size of the sprites, the ridiculous levels of fluidity and detail, and the boominess of the thuds emitting from the over-worked speaker made the likes of Final Fight feel like more than just a game.
I was seriously taken with Final Fight at the time, and part of me would’ve killed for a Spectrum or Master System port. At the same time, however, I knew it couldn’t possibly be anywhere near the same experience. The recent Spectrum port of the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles arcade game (which also ported to the SNES) captured a lot of the gameplay details correctly, but without the animated intro, FM rendition of the theme tune, or sampled “Cowabunga!”, it just wasn’t the same experience. As much as the likes of Midnight Resistance gave me hope, those huge sprites seemed like a technical achievement too far.
R tape loading error, 0:1
As I got home and put the tape in the machine, my heart was instantly broken.
Though human ears can’t discern the exact nature of the data being transferred from tape player to Spectrum, the patterns used to transmit are perfectly recognisable: generally a pilot tone (red and blue borders accompanied by a “dooooooo-ip” sound) followed by the data itself (a longer pulse of alternating thin yellow and blue-lines in the borders accompanied by a “ksshhhhhh” sound.) When I heard the familiar “ksshhhhh” sound but saw thick red and blue border colours scrolling down the screen, I knew something had gone terribly wrong.
Thankfully, dud tapes weren’t as common an experience as some Spectrum retrospectives would suggest. On the rare occasions I encountered them, the two-step process was always the same:
- Reset the machine and try again, feeling slightly manic.
- Feeling even more manic, reset the machine and just let the tape run to see if the strange bit was part of the normal loading process.
Though simply resetting and trying again worked occasionally, by 1991, step two had an impressive 100% failure rate. Still it was worth a try anyway, right?
Mercifully, this was the only occasion that letting the tape run actually worked. I’m not sure why – I suspect it was part of a cunning boot loader script designed to prevent the game being duplicated in a cassette deck – but I was just ecstatic the tape wasn’t a dud and the game had loaded.
Or had it? One kind of disbelief rapidly made way for another: after selecting my controls from the main menu, it booted into a complete rendition of the arcade’s animated intro – normally the first thing to be jettisoned from any Spectrum port. True, the colour palette might look a tad bizarre today, but I was absolutely over the moon at the time. I took it as a sign that maybe – just maybe – the programmer had achieved something miraculous.
So amazed was I by the intro that I really didn’t mind having to endure another few minutes of loading after the character select screen (with all three characters from the arcade included, by the way. Take THAT Super Nintendo!). My expectations by this point were sky high, but when the next loading section finished and I was finally dumped into the mean streets of Metro City, I was still taken aback by the result.
Yes, it was monochrome – as most Speccy action titles were – but it was incredibly detailed. The Haggar sprite took up about 45% of the play area, the backgrounds included all the little details from the arcade (broken windows, over-filled bins, etc), and the enemies even had names and energy bars. Visually, this was 100% arcade Final Fight – not some sort of compromised 8-bitified knock off.
An awkward swan song
So well did it capture the visual experience of Final Fight, in fact, that I was happy to overlook that it mostly unplayable. As a game, Spectrum Final Fight had two main issues: firstly, it (predictably) lacked the fluid pace of the original arcade. Secondly, and equally predictably (as many Speccy brawlers had the same issue), was the sub-par collision detection. The mechanics for measuring where fists/bodies met were more complicated than the simple hit/death routines of a platformer or run-and-gun, and they seem to have been a tad too complex for the Spectrum’s struggling Z80 to work out with any kind of accuracy.
At the time, this didn’t bother me too much. After all, my Spectrum was chucking around the same gigantic sprites I’d seen in the arcade game and – detection aside – Mike Haggar had his full set of moves from the arcade. Overall, I felt like I’d probably had more than my money’s worth: the three hard-coded credits allowed me to struggle as far as the subway and, as I generally only ever had a scrounged 50p or £1 coin to spend on arcade games anyway, it was probably about as far as I had ever progressed in the original game anyway.
Spectrum Final Fight was to be played on and off for a few happy weeks, even though the amount of time and effort required to load the intro and main game meant it wasn’t played quite as regularly as earlier Speccy blockbusters. Still, my machine’s days were numbered. Within a few months, the Spectrum itself was condemned to storage to make way for a shiny new Mega Drive, taking Final Fight with it.
For the next 27 years or so, Spectrum Final Fight remained a happy memory of an amazingly heroic, but ultimately futile, port whose very existence makes for a nice bit of retro trivia. But having returned to it recently, I came to an amazing realisation: all those years ago, I’d been playing it completely wrong.
A (barrel-)hidden gem?
The Spectrum port does such a good job of rendering monochrome versions of the original arcade game’s characters, animations and environments that it was all too easy to try and play it as if it were the arcade game. The problem, however, is that it was not the arcade game. The slower pace demanded by the less capable CPU, the smaller number of on-screen opponents and questionable collision detection combined to create a game that required a somewhat different approach.
The main issue to deal with was the collision detection. Though you’d probably think that a questionable damage model is somewhat of a deal-breaker when it comes to a brawler, Speccy Final Fight had a saving grace: detection issues had just as big an effect on the CPU-controlled fighters as they do on the player. If the player repeatedly punched through CPU-controlled fighters only for the computer to repeatedly land pixel-perfect counters, Speccy Final Fight would be an unplayable mess. Instead, the enemy had just as much chance of punching straight through the player sprite, putting everyone on a relatively even keel.
Though these initially seemed like drawbacks, the smaller number of enemies and the slower pace go some way towards mitigating collision detection too. Though landing each individual blow was rendered more difficult, it was offset slightly by having more time to get yourself in the correct position and not having to worry about being swarmed by large groups of fighters.
That’s not to say that countering these issues instantly made Speccy Final Fight a perfect game. One issue that remained was the unbalancing of move sets: unlike the arcade, the crowd-clearing special moves didn’t use a portion of the player’s health, while grab moves were unarguably the easiest to perform.
As a result, you’d find yourself in the perverse position of having their most difficult move – a basic jab – causing the least amount of damage. Another issue was the lack of invisible walls that blocked the player’s progress in other versions. The absence of these wasn’t a bad thing in itself, but the player could end up accidentally fighting all the stage’s opponents before the halfway point, leading to a lonely, barren stroll to the next level.
Even if flaws remain, my new-found skills, combined with 27 years worth of Final Fight playing, confirm that despite the machine’s limitations, the Speccy version is a more complete port than even I’d originally given credit for. Back in 1991, I could vouch for the closeness of the first level, but now I can say that the overall list of things that were cut out of the game is ridiculously short:
- There’s no Metro City map introducing each stage;
- Intro aside, there’s no music (sob); and
- There’s no ending beyond a “congratulations” message.
That’s pretty much it. Common enemy sprites? Pretty much all there. Boss characters? Yep! Both bonus stages? Yep yep! Subway train pulling into the station on level two? Yes! Illicit ring match on level 3? Aye! Animated lift-based section of level 4? Si! Even in an era where Spectrum conversions were as close as they could be, Final Fight deserves extra credit for taking a title that demanded so much from the computer and delivering it with almost all its content intact. It definitely puts the sorry, heavily-edited SNES version to shame.
Grab, not jab!
Once you understand its idiosyncrasies and look beyond its technical quality, the Speccy version of Final Fight isn’t such a bad effort at all. In fact, in some respects, I now find Spectrum Final Fight preferable to some “superior” versions.
After its release in 1993, the Mega CD version blew me away because it seemed so thoroughly identical to the arcade. That didn’t work out so well when it came to the original’s extreme difficulty. Even on easy, Final Fight CD spammed the player with relentless waves of enemies who are not only relatively powerful but can also launch attacks towards the player from beyond the invisible barrier that blocks the player’s progress. It is not a terribly fair experience.
Though it had its issues of its own, the Spectrum conversion was a better game for avoiding some of these. The action might be rendered more sluggish because of the Spectrum’s more basic processor, but the overall design was more fluid thanks to the smaller number of enemies, the lack of invisible walls or enemy wave spamming. It may not provide as much of a challenge as other versions (its three hard-coded credits were, if anything, too many) but it had a better difficulty balance for anyone who was looking to relax with a game, rather than take on some form of challenge.
Overall, though it might be a risky business to return to something that your hazy memories have convinced you was incredibly impressive, I’m glad I took the time to return to Final Fight’s Spectrum outing. As I considered it little more than an impressive technical demo at the time, it’s nice for that the game had the opportunity to demonstrate how wrong I was – even if it is 27 years too late.
Wonder what the iconic Final Fight soundtrack might have sounded like on the ZX Spectrum? Wonder no more! FatNicK’s collection of Speccified Final Fight tunes is available from all major digital stores and streaming sites.
- Huge, gorgeous sprites
- It’s got everything, even the car-smashing bonus stage
- Haggar’s piledriver is really satisfying to perform
- A bit slooowwww
- No music
- Tape version features a lot of loading – even on deluxe Spectrums!
Although I’d written it off as little more than an impressive tech demo for two decades, Spectrum Final Fight eventually revealed itself to be a port of surprising depth and completeness. If you can get past the two-colour graphics, this is a must-play for any fan of Capcom’s classic brawler.