There were, of course, tile-matching or match-three puzzlers before the likes of Candy Crush Saga went ballistic on mobile in the early 2010’s, but not so much when the ZX Spectrum’s heyday was gradually fading into 16-bit computer and console oblivion in the late eighties. Mechanics were emerging though – on the Game Boy, Tetris would have been my first experience of anything like this, and I think my brother had Columns on his Sega Game Gear (rather than his Mega Drive), which introduced us to tile swapping. A bit later, I’d absolutely fall for Dr Mario on NES and then my old favourite Bubble Bobble when it evolved into Puzzle Bobble in the mid-nineties. And what a list of games we’ve got there! I guess the Spectrum did get a port of Plotting though, the Taito arcade game similar to their Puzznic, another big influence on what was to come…

I do remember Bejeweled appearing on our early internet browsers in 2001, developing a lot of those ideas and ushering in what we’d now consider match-three for the masses, but cannot for the life of me remember the spin on it that I completely obsessed over on my beloved Compaq Pocket PC (and two subsequent upgrades) from around 2002 until my first smartphone, the iPhone 4, in 2010. It involved matching chickens, eggs and other poultry-related items, and I’d call it Chicken when my wife was asking me what the hell I was doing in bed in the middle of the night, but no idea what it was actually called. Assuming it wasn’t that! I’ve played a load of these on different systems since, I guess starting with Puzzle Quest and then Puzzle & Dragons, and on through the Candy Crushes, Azkend, Luxor 2 or 3, loads I can’t remember, Grindstone and, most recently, Temple Run: Puzzle Adventure as part an ongoing Apple Arcade trial.

But for all of those decades matching stuff, it’s taken the arrival of Vegetable Deluxe, at the tail end of 2021, to get me doing it on the ZX Spectrum. And let me say from the outset, because you might be having the same thoughts that I first did, I’m amazed at how well suited it is, from the way it looks (and sounds if you’re on 128K) to the way it plays! Vegetable Deluxe is available as a $4.99 or more digital download on creator Mike Richmond’s page here, or you can buy the game on actual cassette for £7.99 from Phoenix Ware in the UK here, or rest of the world from Double Sided Games here.

The aim of the game is to make vertical or horizontal lines of three or more matching vegetables, which involves swapping any two vegetables on the play screen by pressing fire then pushing in a direction. I’ve tried this with (redefined) keys, and it works fine once you’ve got your fingers in the zone, but I’d definitely recommend the Kempston joystick option if you can, which feels surprisingly natural from the outset. If you’ve got nothing left to match, the board gets shuffled, until you run out of shuffles when it’s game over. Matching three vegetables removes them from the play area, and new ones will drop down to replace them, though sometimes an immovable block will intrude on the vegetable action, and you can only get rid of these by strategically dropping them until you can form a line of three or more. Matching four shapes in a row will give you a full line’s worth of destruction, which five will destroy all matching shapes and give you a bonus shuffle.

You’ve also got four game modes, which increase in challenge as you go. Casual mode is where you can while away far too long without realising it, going easy on the immovable blocks and without any time pressure, though you can still run out of shuffles if you’re not careful. Classic mode ups the ante on the immovable blocks, and they’ll gradually increase in frequency making it harder to make matches. Shopping mode is really cool! On the left hand side of the screen you’ve got a tally of different vegetables matched, but in this mode it’s turned into a shopping list, requiring you to make the number of matches indicated. At first you simply need to match three of each shape to get to the next level, but the number of matches you need to achieve quickly ramps up. Then there’s Countdown Mode, the one for the match-three connoisseur! You have an alarmingly brief amount of time to make your match before the timer runs out, and if you don’t do it you’ll lose a shuffle, which have now effectively become lives.

All of these modes absolutely have their own merit, and you’ll find all tile-match conventions present and correct, including the little flashing hint over a potential match if it thinks you’re getting stuck. Although that’s not going to do you any good in Countdown mode, which does a marvellous job of creating tension and then turning it into outright panic within seconds! This mode’s the one where the action’s at, and I still can’t quite get over the juxtaposition between the vibrant, smiling vegetables and the sheer anxiety as you frantically fail to spot a match before the time disappears. For all of those games I mentioned playing before, I can’t think of any that’s done this so successfully! And that’s on top of the regular match-three thrills of getting a big T-shape score, or a parade of lucky vegetable drops that keep clearing out spaces without you even touching them!

It’s not just the tile-matching mechanics that Vegetable Deluxe nails though – it also nails being a Spectrum game! It’s worth mentioning here that there’s already an Amiga version of this, which gave me instant nostalgia for those wonderful Atari ST public domain games I used to get, as well as a Commodore 64 version, which has the most fantastic Rob Hubbard-esque theme tune coming out of that SID-chip! And that’s actually an update of the original Vegetables on there, Mike Richmond’s entry to the RGCD 16K Competition 2019. But while even the Spectrum 128K can’t quite compete with that musical finesse (although it’s a hell of a tune with a hell of a thump for a drumbeat all the same!), it more than makes up for it with the visuals though – Vegetables Deluxe simply comes to life on the Spectrum!

The play area itself might dominate proceedings, but the boldest of bright blue instrumentation surrounding it is the first thing that hits you, with its shadows and highlights almost successfully disguising subtle signs of wear and tear around its screwed-in panels – it’s just so striking! This contains timer, score readouts and so on, each with their own character that adds to the overall polish, including an introduction to the real stars of the show, the vegetables! It’s amazing how much character a few well-placed pixels can add to leek or a mushroom! The nature of the game also affords them so much colour too – far more than you’re used to seeing on a Spectrum – and it all results in a literal visual feast! I appreciated the way the sound effects also acted as additional highlights too, rather than create their own soundtrack, which is often for the best on the Spectrum!

I really wasn’t expecting to be caught off guard by a match-three game this week, and certainly not a brand new premium one on the ZX Spectrum, but I genuinely can’t recommend this enough! I had way more relentless play out of it in the space of the first 24 hours alone than $4.99 needs to justify, and I’ll definitely be looking at trying to cram one more cassette box onto my Spectrum shelf as soon as that’s available too. Yes, it’s a match-three, but match-three can be great when it’s great match-three, and this is that, if you’re still following! Seriously though, it’s polished, it’s addictive, and while there’s not much competition, it’s the best of the genre on the Spectrum. And it’s a great Spectrum game in its own right, in 2021 no less too!