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

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