When we were looking at The Trap Door (here), we had quite the discussion on Twitter (I may have even gone a bit viral for a moment!) about the best-looking Spectrum game – came up with quite the list too! The Trap Door obviously came out pretty well, as did stuff like R-Type, Exolon, Dan Dare, Light Force and Bomb Jack; no disagreement here so far! I discovered some absolulute corkers I’d never even heard of too, like Savage, Draconus and Astro Marine Corps, all of which possibly coincided with the arrival of my Atari ST! And we also covered a few more modern Spectrum games, like 1997’s The Dark, 2014’s Metal Man Reloaded, 2019’s Valley of Rains and the even more recent, very wonderful Wonderful Dizzy (more here!). Aside from The Trap Door, there were quite a few shouts for other Don Priestley games – the sequel, Through The Trap Door, Flunky, Benny Hill’s Madcap Chase, and probably just about as popular as The Trap Door, Popeye! I had a problem with Popeye though, because everything else (apart from Benny Hill!) looks as good in action as it does on screenshots; Popeye, on the other hand, moves like a dog, and delivers the exact amount of colour clash you’d expect a game with that much colour moving about on a Spectrum… Loads!
It’s not the first time we’ve been caught out by a screenshot though! All those VIC-20 games like Jump Jet with those beautiful Commodore 64 screenshots on the back of the box; the Spectrum wasn’t averse to those kind of shenanigans either, though we did occasionally get our own back with masterpieces like Enduro Racer! And it wasn’t the last time either, although the game missing from the list above may well have been the last time for me at least, with the aforementioned Atari ST looming large on the horizon, and that was, of course, Merlin!
There was no more effective way of selling your game than festooning it with some of the biggest and best-looking graphics you’ve ever seen and then sticking a £1.99 price tag on it, and that’s exactly what Firebird Software did with Mike Westlake’s Merlin early on in 1988. He’d still be plugging away at the Spectrum’s life support machine five year later, with a similarly big and bold pirate take on Merlin, Pieces of Eight, then another called S.A.S. Combat Assault, which appeared when the only people putting out games were Sinclair User magazine! But as good as all of them look, I’m all about his first Spectrum game, Tarantula, a 1987 cavern crawler where you’re flying about on a jetpack collecting stuff and avoiding insects, especially the giant tarantula, which is genuinely one of my favourite sights in all of gaming!
Anyway, back to getting sucked in by Merlin! I was, and whilst it’s nowhere near in the league of something like Kung-Fu Master, I distinctly remember coming home one evening from my Saturday job collecting trolleys at Sainsbury’s with this graphical powerhouse in my pocket, loading it up and just being so disappointed. Big generally isn’t beautiful, whatever wishful thinkers might say, and it also makes playing what thinks of itself as a modern-day Manic Miner an absolute stinker! We’ll get to that again, I’m sure, but however much that evening was just about all the chance I ever gave playing it, it’s always been on the tip of my tongue every time there’s talk of fancy 8-bit graphics, and over three decades on I reckoned this was the time to have another look at it, so here we are!
You might get glamorous screenshots for £1.99, but you rarely got a literary work of art to back them up, even when it’s based on one like this is! Yes, this Merlin is that Merlin! “Mystery magic and mayhem from Merlin the magnificent mage” is what the back of the box tells us; nothing else, but we are getting it in no less than seven languages! Let’s delve deep inside the inlay card instead… “Guide Merlin around the mystical Kingdom of Camelot collecting stars to recover his lost magic powers.” That’s it! No heavyweight medieval romances here, just wander about and collect some stars. For £1.99 I’m not even going to point out that the legendary Camelot is a castle and court, not a kingdom, though given that everything happens in a little castle and its spooky garden, I think we’re all square anyway!
I know I’ve come across as a little dismissive so far, but let’s be clear, once you get past the slightly ropey loading screen, this game is absolutely stunning to look at! It really is up there with me, The Trap Door and the rest as one of the best-looking things you’ll ever see on a Spectrum. It’s not just Merlin that’s massive, it’s everything. Except the castle! But everything else – the suits of armour (or are they actual knights standing about?); the intricate tables and chairs and bookcases; the lecterns holding a literal literary heavyweight; the giant fish that lives in the moat and the oversized barrels of booze in the cellar… all enormous! In the middle of the castle, you’ve got King Arthur’s Round Table, and we know it’s this and not any old table because it’s written in big capital letters on the side – twice – like some kind of old brand logo. Makes me laugh every time! The colour palette is classic Spectrum, but there’s an awful lot of it, with beautifully detailed magenta brickwork, some exquisite red woodwork and a subtly shaded bright green pikeman!
We could say all of that about Popeye though, so how is it in motion? Given that Merlin’s probably an old man, his stiff movement is forgivable, although he’s quick on his feet – too quick for something that relies on a bit of precision a lot of the time! That said, a lot of the stiffness of movement is very much down to the lack of animation – apart from bending his knees to either duck or jump, I’m not convinced there’s any whatsoever! He’s either facing left or right and there might be a bit of movement in his feet, but even despite his enormous size, it’s really hard to tell! There’s so many objects in so many colours everywhere, there’s an awful lot of the time that you won’t really be able to see Merlin at all, which, again, isn’t always ideal for this kind of game! And all of those colours do exactly what you think they will; there’s some glorious colour clash here! I think my favourite examples are any time his bright blue wizard’s hat goes past anything (which is a lot of the time given his size), and when he moves behind the red, green and yellow bookcases and almost completely disappears – all you can see is a total merging of the sprites as he moves across them, Predator style. Actually, with a lick of paint this could have been even better than the actual Predator game that I think came out at exactly the same time!
The sound is a bit grating. The unrelenting classic Spectrum footstep noise is just about tolerable, but there’s these higher-pitched, almost nasal versions of it for some of the enemies which are really annoying, or quieter versions for others, which range from big insects to ghosts to living broomsticks, though these are mostly normal game size, which is a little odd when you’re in one of the few less cluttered environments, but they mostly move about in an inoffensive way. Which isn’t the case for some of the other sound effects – the squelchy beep as you catch a star, or the squelchier one when you lose a life and the more high pitched variant when you’re just losing life force. It’s all just a bit of a cacophony of annoying Spectrum sounds! The title screen music isn’t much better – if I had to write a game theme, I reckon it would sound like this – random notes until you get a hint of a melody, then speed things up and repeat it!
I’m not sure how many screens make up the seemingly small castle of the kingdom of the Camelot, but I reckon around thirty. There’s absolutely no variety in the gameplay no matter which direction you go and how many you make it through though – you’ll have a bunch of stars to collect on each one, which will involve some light jumping and ducking, and some pixel perfect avoiding of enemies that are usually synchronised to make anything less than pixel perfect mean either loss of life force or instant death. I never did work out which enemies would cause which outcome, but you’ll soon find out why you start with ten lives and a life force meter for each one! As we’ve already hinted at, regardless of you being an overly fast but ultimately stiff giant, that pixel perfect thing really gets most problematic when you’re going all Predator in the colour clash jungle of death and you can’t actually tell where he is in relation to the baddies! And that’s the major fun-sucker here.
In the end, all those wonderful graphics are Merlin’s downfall. Too big, too much, and whilst a bit of all fur coat and no knickers can go a long way in delaying such simple gameplay quickly running out of steam, in this case it just serves to accelerate it. But for all it lacks in any kind of long-term fun, I probably got my £1.99’s worth out of bringing it up over the years every time I get the chance to talk about the best-looking game on the Spectrum!