Fred

This is among the earliest games I ever played. It was part of the Amsoft 12 pack, under the name of Roland On The Ropes, that came free with every Amstrad CPC464. A computer I got only a year after the ZX Spectrum. While the Amstrad version does make very good use of that computers superior colour palette, the two versions are as nigh on identical as two versions of the same game can be.

Back in the the late 80’s for some unfathomable reason I never really ‘got’ the maze nature of this game. Replaying properly some 30-odd years later and the riff on earlier maze games from the 70’s makes perfect sense. This is a quintessential random computer maze experience. It’s all about the presentation.

Presentation wise it has a very Indiana Jones feel and very reminiscent of Core Design’s Rick Dangerous that’ll appear on the scene some 5 years later. I do wonder, given the nature of some of the nasties, the ropes, and main character design, if Atari 2600’s Pitfall provided some inspiration for this game.

Fred, in the Spectrum version, is a very big chunky well detailed sprite. Something that immediately sets it apart from the more common smaller sprites in most spectrum games of around the time. Again the large character detail reminding me of a game like Saboteur that’d come out around a year later.

As you move around the maze you need to avoid nasties which will drain your energy. Ghosts are most common which can be shot at to encourage them to change direction. Little caterpillars crawl along floors need careful timing to jump over. And in later levels bouncing Mummies are a real treat to watch move around the maze.

On the way there’s a few collectibles to be had to boost your score but ultimately it is all about finding the rope leading to the exit somewhere at the very top of the maze.

Alas there are a couple of issues that just keeps this game from being an ideal 5-star outing. And I do think they are all things that were fixable with a bit more playtesting when the game was being written. Timing avoiding some nasties can be a little tricky and being hit stops movement while the player is red for a few seconds. Ropes can be difficult to mount and dismount and needs some unnecessary pixel perfect positioning.

The worst problem is how badly the game flickers and how slow movement is. Is the game written in BASIC? Too many sprites on screen? The Z80 not liking 2-way scrolling? Whatever the reason the slow flickering movement is almost a deal breaker.

4/5

Atic Atac

Back in the late 1980’s I only had a ZX Spectrum for a year. Even then it was only the 16K model and I only remember two main games from the time. All my ZX Spectrum experience either comes from ports for the Amstrad CPC or games I’ve found in the years since using emulation.

Atic Atac is one of the later. As far as I know this was a Speccy exclusive and never found its way to the Amstrad micros. Shame as this is easily the Stamper brothers finest moment. In the early 80’s the Stampers, through their company Ultimate Play The Game, dominated the ZX Spectrum gaming market thanks to a production quality their competitors struggled to rival.

Atic Atac offers a psuedo-3D top-down view of the action. The heart of the game is a very standard for the time maze affair. Though it is a pretty big maze set in the environs of a fairly large mansion. The maze is traversed in a typical for the era flip screen approach walking through doors to flip the action to the next room.

The object of the game is to open the main door in the lobby where you actually begin the game. You do this my finding the three parts of the main door key that spell out ACG (Ashby Computer Graphics – another company name used by the Stampers). This is made harder by random monsters appearing to drain your energy which can be fended off by pressing the fire button.

As you travel around some doorways will be blocked and can only be passed if you are holding the appropriate colour key. Adding to your difficulties is the fact you can only carry three objects at a time. So there’s an element of going back and forth, finding what you’re looking for, dropping main key parts in the opening lobby, while fending on energy sucking nasties.

Your energy also depletes while you move, but thankfully there’s plenty of food to pick up as you travel around, and three lives if you need then (hint: you will).

The only real negative I found in playing this game was the controls. Remember this game was made for a computer with rubber keys, that most would not have added a joystick to, by a company that had just recently released the brilliant Jetpac with very userfriendly keyboard perfect controls. In this game they choose to line up the movement and fire in one line – Q,W,E,R,T. Not even the horrid Speccy standard of cursor control on the number keys. Trying to get used to moving up and down in that layout is a right mindbender. Literally a game breaker. If we review the game from here, as we probably should, it falls from grace down to a 2/5 experience.

However, I can’t do that. Plug in a Kempston compatible joystick (not really that uncommon for the time) and this game easily becomes one of, if not the, best gaming experience on the Spectrum. Later Ultimate games have better looking 3D (like Knightlore) but honestly randomness hinders those games where they enhance this one.

5/5

Manic Miner

This game was released in 1983. A time before game saves. You had lives. Run out of them and it’s game over – back to the very beginning to try again. How anyone ever completed all 20 levels of this game prior to the emergence of emulators on more modern hardware in the mid-90’s I’d never know. Maybe a cheat device like Romantic Robot’s Multiface to hack in infinite lives? Without that I’m sure it’s impossible, at least not without going completely insane. You see having three lives and dying on level 8 meant working flawlessly through the previous 7 levels //again// before having your next shot and working out how to beat that difficult level you’ve just encountered. Even with modern emulators allowing me to save state and instant reload at the start of the current level I bowed out at level 8 (Miner Willy Meets The Kong Beast).

You might reflect on all that and consider this all a bad thing and feel negatively about the game, and yet somehow its not. Maybe because this was fairly unique for its time. It’s loosely based on the Atari 2600 game Miner 2049er and similar early platforming experience like Donkey Kong (the head nod being giving by the aforementioned level 8). Maybe it was the number of levels, having gone from just 4 in Donkey Kong to 10 in Miner 2049er to 20 in Manic Miner. Or maybe it’s just the addictive fairness offered by the ‘just one more go’ mentality of Matthew Smith’s fiendish level designs. The game is difficult, but it’s fun.

Each level plays out the same way, jump between platforms and collect the flashing keys to open the door and exit while avoiding just about everything else on the screen which will kill you and remove a life. With only 3 lives on offer for the whole game and plenty of pixel perfect timing to be had there’s a lot of practice needed to get even close to the half way point.

Really this game gets its much deserved reputation for a combination of era timing and presentation. A couple of years later and the graphics would be considered dated and the difficulty too hard and this game would be in the garbage pile of history. Thankfully this game along at just the right moment in time. Along with Jetpac and Attic Attac, Manic Miner makes up a trilogy of top class, unique, arcade games brought to the ZX Spectrum for the Christmas of 1983 and ushered in a new era in video gaming far removed from the basic offerings of previous systems like the Atari 2600 of VIC-20.

5/5

Jetpac

This game has a very special place in my heart. It’s probably not the very first video game I ever played, there are a couple of other good contenders for that (Galaxian, Breakout, Cruising On Broadway) but it is definitely up there. Like Cruising this was one of the very few games my Dad actually took an active interest in. It was among the three or four cassettes with a 16K Sinclair ZX Spectrum given to us by our next door neighbour when I was 9.

It was also the game that showed the most longevity and was the highest quality in visual appeal and gameplay. Other games, like Throu’ The Wall (Breakout) and Cruising On Broadway were very simple line drawn and blocky graphics reminiscent of an unknown previous era. Jetpac was a fall on arcade quality game (though I’d never seen or heard of what an arcade might be back then).

The reason for Jetpac’s high production values comes from the writers Tim and Chris Stamper. The brothers wrote the games and run the company behind the then popular Ultimate Play The Game label which later went on to produce very high quality games under the RARE label for several Nintendo consoles. Jetpac’s arcade values wasn’t by chance, Tim and Chris actually got their start porting arcade games from NTSC to PAL. Converting games from the likes of Konami and Sega gave them the grounding needed for a certain production quality that they brought to all of their ZX Spectrum games.

During a time many commercial games where being written in BASIC, Jetpac was an early poster child for pure Machine Code programming. The detail of the sprites, the use of the Spectrums colour palate and attribute system, and the speed of fluidity of the animations showed a game that could have happily succeeded next to the likes of Galaxian, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong in the arcades.

You play the eponymous Jetman character and must guide him around a simple single screen with three platforms. Your task is to build your spaceship and refuel it before taking off from the planet. While doing this you’ll be under constant attack from the locals that you’ll need to fend of the locals with your lazer fire.

The size of this game compared to anything else at the time is breath taking. There are 16 whole distinct levels before the game wrap rounds and starts again. Every fourth level (1,5,9,13) have a new spaceship design for you to build. And there are 8 different alien designs that repeat (1-8,9-16), so you need to make it back round to level 17 before you see the same spaceship and alien combination.

How they got all of this in just 16K of RAM is mind boggling. And it’s a great game to boot. At no time does the gameplay suffer for high quality of the graphics and animation. If there’s a complaint it’ that there really is only one level design, but since you have four different ship designs and each of the 8 aliens have their own unique attack patterns it really doesn’t matter. Each level has it’s own unique feel regardless.

The Stampers captured that important – just one more go – magic of the early arcades. The need to see what’s next and set the new high score.

5/5

Cruising On Broadway

Back in 1986 my next-door neighbour introduced 9-year old me to the world of computers, offering up a 16K ZX Spectrum to monopolise the family television with. There was only a handful of games, being the 16K model most Speccy games were too big to play. Cruising was one of those games.

It was this game and Jetpac that the whole family would obsess over for the next couple of months. Especially Sundays while Dad was cooking dinner. We’d set high scores, he’d pop in while the yorkshires where rising and try to beat us, and on it would go. We’d get up the next morning with the Speccy still preciously turned on, a new high score set with parents having been up all night battling against 5 chasers.

The game itself is very simple and in presentation is nothing that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the previous Atari and Philips systems. In fact it’s really just a variation of the Pac-Man theme. You have a maze/grid of lines that you must pass over and change their colour from white to green. The maze is complete when all the lines have turned green.

Attempting to stop you are the chasers who move randomly around the mazes. They move much, much faster than you and when you collide it is game over. There are only four mazes with just one chaser on the first playthrough. However each time you successfully complete a set another chaser is added to make matters harder.

4/5

Spectrum Cross

Another classic staple of the Arcade scene expertly brought to the home TV screen. Frogger follows in the steps of Pong, Breakout, Space Invaders, and Pac-Man in providing unique, simple, addictive gameplay. All you need to do is guide the frog across the road and in to one of the free home squares at the top of the screen.

Spectrum Cross is not on only an unofficial port from the Arcade but a magazine type-in listing written in BASIC. Even so the few issue that arise because of this are entirely forgivable because the resulting game is a nigh perfect port. The frog flashes a little too much, the movement is a tad slow, as is user input in the game loop, but nothing to a point were the game is broken.

Graphically the game looks very good when looking at what was being sold commercially just a year or two earlier, even the original official Frogger, on machines like the Atari 2600. The programmer making very good use of the Spectrums bright colour palette and higher screen resolution.

5/5