As regular viewers will be aware, I like a list! My huge list of favourite games (which is the dim and distant reason we’re here), favourite VIC-20 games, favourite Atari 2600 Pac-Man clones, favourite Spectrum loading screens, favourite gaming adverts from 1987… Not to mention non-gaming stuff like movies, movie soundtracks, horror movie soundtracks, TV shows, books, singles, albums, live albums and so on. After all of that we might also need to add some lists of lists! The more I do this, the more lists I seem to come up with, and the closer I inch towards having one for everything! In general, it’s all favourite stuff, but there’s one list that no one wants to be a part of, and that’s my list of games that I wish were on that big favourite games list (now up to two hundred games, all in order of greatness!), but just weren’t very good.
Specifically, that list is as follows:
- Slaine (ZX Spectrum)
- Highlander (ZX Spectrum)
- Streethawk (ZX Spectrum)
- Miami vice (ZX Spectrum)
- Knightrider (ZX Spectrum)
Some quick observations… Firstly, I hadn’t realised that they were all Spectrum games until just now. Secondly, apart from the game that tops the list (and don’t touch that dial because there’s a lot more to it than being unplayable!) that we’re about to go into a bit more here, there’s a lot of similarity with my favourite TV show list! And in Slaine’s defence, that list would easily be topped by the Spectrum port of Kung-Fu Master if I’d never had access to the arcade version! Unfortunately for Slaine I did though, but it’s also been so long since I played it that I should have another look, just to make sure this is all still justified, and not whatever the opposite of rose-tinted spectacles are! Actually, looking at that list of things not on another list, I think we could have a bit of a series on the way here too…
We’ll stick with Slaine for starters though, but before we even fire it up, I’ve found something new in its favour! Apart from rifling through old magazines that I should have thrown out thirty years ago, one of my favourite things about writing about old games is digging out their cassette boxes – especially those double-sized ones that only came with one cassette inside, because you never know what else I decided to store in the extra space!
In the case of Slaine, there was that little bonus and more besides though! The extra cassette in there was a Your Sinclair cover tape from May 1990, featuring Samurai, a complete strategy war game from Domark, and a demo of mundane but sometimes fun vertical shooter, Scramble Spirits. What we also had though, tucked behind the instruction booklet, was a load of folded up paper that didn’t really fit in the box so it couldn’t close properly anymore! It was all magazine cut-outs, and it all looked like Computer & Video Games. Unfolding revealed two double-page spreads, firstly a full-colour game map, and secondly the very preview that had completely sold me on one of my absolute favourite comic characters coming to my Spectrum!
I think we’ll come back to that preview after a quick look at the character behind the game though. I went through my history with cult British sci-if comic 2000A.D. when we looked at Rogue Trooper, which is where we also find our fantasy war machine Slaine. He first appeared there in 1983, like Conan the Barbarian on a journey through Celtic mythology. He’s been banished by his tribe, and together with his dodgy dwarf companion Ukko and his legendary axe, Brainbiter, he’s out for adventure in the Land of the Young, Tír na nÓg (which reminds me of another Spectrum game we should look at sometime)! A lot of fighting ensues, usually over maidens in distress or supernatural monsters on the loose or some warring gods, aided by Slaine’s warp spasm, where the power of the earth “warps” through his body, berserker-style. All three of those regular plot mechanics came together fairly early on to introduce Slaine’s main nemesis, Lord Weird Slough Feg, a twenty thousand year old nutcase with a penchant for making people kill themselves then bringing them back from the dead. Another all-time great comic-book character there, but back with Slaine he’d go on to become a king and a god, and we’d meet aliens, demons and dragons in all kinds of historic and folklore-inspired other-worlds for decades to come!
As much as I loved my weekly issue of 2000A.D. there were a handful of characters that I really got into, and still lap up to this day! Nemesis the Warlock, Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper and our man Slaine in particular stand out, and whenever the opportunity arose, I’d be picking up their monthlies and specials and standalone stuff. That opportunity generally only arose on our two or three times a year treks to the science fiction of Central Milton Keynes shopping centre, and a long-since gone comic shop just off of one of the main walkways, where, assuming I spotted it as we walked around because it was all a bit of a maze to me, I’d be left to my own devices for twenty minutes or so to update my very disjointed collection. Over time, Nemesis the Warlock has probably become my first port of call when it comes to reading 2000A.D. but back then the S for Slaine row was priority number one! And that’s why that C&VG preview was such a big deal, because while the Nemesis game had been kind of alright, this thing looked like an actual comic that you could become a part of, and not just that, it looked absolutely unique!
Interestingly, the instruction manual in the cassette box touches on this too. In a Design Notes section, developers Martech tell us that while Nemesis the Warlock was very well received, “true 2000A.D. devotees felt that it did not go far enough to capture the true spirit of Nemesis, as portrayed in the comic.” We then get a cool insight into the game development – still in the instruction manual – which I think is something else that’s unique that this game has going for it! “We realised that for Slaine an entirely original approach was required. What was needed was some form of interactive story, obviously with graphics, to show the action in full detail. The original idea was to have some kind of continuous scrolling story, from which various key parts could be selected by the use of a free roaming cursor. Upon selection, expanding windows would graphically display the result of your choices. Eventually the scrolling story became “Thoughts“ from Slaine’s mind, and the cursor became a severed hand. This unique method of game control was called REFLEX.” And I reckon we might just come back to that shortly!
In the meantime, I promised I’d come back to the preview I tore out of C&VG; and I have no idea why I decided to do that! Tearing out the map I get, but there were loads of games in those magazines that I’d get excited about, and I can’t think of any other example of needing the preview – which is backed up by almost ten years’ worth of back issues that, apart from adverts that ended up on my bedroom wall, are more or less intact! Maybe I planned to use its Slaine art on my wall too, but it didn’t work out; or maybe I knew that nearly 35 years later it would be able to earn its keep! And to that end, I’m going to paraphrase it for the game’s plot! Slaine and cowardly Ukko the Dwarf are searching for the name of the owner of an unmarked grave. That’s actually more than the instructions tell us despite the brief novelisation that sets the scene, where a series of unfortunate events set said owner, a Drune (dark magic cultist), off on a trail of vengeance and slaughter, culminating in a big village scrap where he cursed everyone as he died.
Back in the preview, we learnt that this quest will be broken down into a series of smaller quests related to Elementals of Earth, Air, Fire (or “Fiure” as it’s written) and Water, and in parallel he’s got the classic damsel in distress to rescue from a high tower with a load of monsters to fight before the frightening final conflict. And that’s where you pick up the tale as Slaine, “making all the decisions, making all the moves and making sure you survive.” And that’s also a good place to delve into this REFLEX system…
“Move the image of Slaine’s hand within the bounds of his imagination.” On the left of the screen, you’ve got a list of words that represent the thoughts in his mind at any given time and situation, so you’re clicking on the one you want him to do. As an aside, the instructions actually state that you might find this system confusing at first, before doing their absolute best at making sure it is! We’re not at the levels of Dino Dini publishing several spreadsheets to explain how to pass a ball in his recent reimagining of my number two favourite game of all time, Kick Off, but there’s a lot of detail here that doesn’t exactly help it’s cause!
For example, main thoughts include things like move, attack, examine and look. The fact that examine and look are separate bothers me more than it should, but anyway, clicking on one of them will bring up a new set of related things, so for “look” you’ll get look > around, in or on. And clicking on one of them will bring up another list of things you could look > on. That’s assuming there’s anything to actually look on, otherwise you’ll get a list of “okay” which is effectively undo. The problem is that the instructions decide to list most but not all of these main and sub-thoughts, and explain what each means, and what isn’t massively complicated in practice suddenly becomes a bit bewildering, particularly when it reaches its climax, giving examples of object manipulation… Seeing USE / KEY (on) / CHEST and PUT IN / POUCH / KEYS and TAKE FROM / POUCH / KEYS is less like instruction and more like a source of undue stress in an instruction manual. But pity the poor Amstrad user, who after all of that is then told that “On the Amstrad version of Slaine, Ukko is handled slightly differently. On “Main Thoughts” the thought “UKKO” will generate “GIVE TO”, “GET OFF” and “HIT” Ukko.” All proof that sometimes less is more, especially when you’re telling people they might get confused when they won’t, but then doing your best to make sure they are!
Despite the best efforts of the instruction manual, the main problem with the REFLEX system isn’t confusion though. In theory it’s genius; the missing link between traditional text adventures where half of the game was spent trying to find words it understood, and the still popular point-and-click adventure. This was pioneering stuff! But the problem is the REFLEX system itself. It just stinks to play with! If we think modern point-and-click, we think mouse or touchscreen, and either might have worked fine here, but we’re way ahead of ourselves with those, so you’ve got a choice of joystick or keyboard to try and precisely position something that’s in constant motion of its own accord, with all kinds of unpredictable momentum at play. And you’ve got a mere second or two if you’re lucky to identify where the thought you want to action is appearing on the screen before it literally shoots off again to reappear somewhere else, and then position this unpredictable moving hand right on top of it and then click fire. It’s frustrating when you’re simply trying to move your character in a certain direction, but try it in combat when you’re facing eighteen warriors and, based on the separate text box on the right, you need to decide whether to dodge or duck or kick or swing next, and then actually select it, and you’ll lose most fights as a result! Finding then clicking on the word you need in time is just a nightmare that doesn’t really get easier with any amount of practice, and keep in mind that this is literally all you’re doing while you’re playing! I’m afraid the unique selling point is actually it’s downfall.
And that’s a shame, because if the devs were trying to capture the spirit of Slaine to a greater degree than they’d managed with Nemesis, then they absolutely succeeded! As a Slaine fan, you couldn’t ask for more! That text box that tells the story and directs your next actions does so wonderfully, with smaller text boxes appearing to complement the action as it proceeds, just like in a proper comic strip. Same with some thoughtfully illustrated graphics panels, sharing some very evocative key scenes, like you’d find in a graphical text adventure, and all of this combines to bring Slaine (and Ukko) to life in a very authentic way. Simple details add atmosphere on top, like the organic Celtic designs around the REFLEX box, the flexing disembodied hands for pointing and clicking, and the scroll design on the main text box, not to mention the fonts they use… Apart from maybe adding a couple of sound effects over the constant clicking noise, the Slaine fan really couldn’t ask for more as far as capturing spirit and then laying it out in front of you to enjoy is concerned!
This reviewed way better than what I’ve just said suggests it deserves! Sinclair User and Your Sinclair loved it, and while it awarded it a C&VG Hit, what we’re seeing in my January 1988 copy of Computer & Video Games is recognition of spirit and innovation over gameplay, clearly stating that the REFLEX system is holding it back. Crash went further, echoing my own thoughts perfectly… “Why oh why did Martech use REFLEX for such a brilliant subject?” And in its 45% review, The Games Machine felt the same… “Slaine is professionally presented and it is a shame that the mode of play lets it down.”
A shame indeed. It’s so nearly the game that Slaine deserved, but they got a bit carried away with being ahead of their time, or at least ahead of what a Kempston joystick could keep up with! I’ve got no regrets about spending a load of time playing it again recently though. There’s a really engaging story tucked away in there, with inventiveness in the writing behind the over-inventiveness of the REFLEX system, and that almost makes the hassle worthwhile. But then you get in combat, and you get your backside handed to you over and over, and when there isn’t a thing you could have done about it, there’s only so long you’re going to put up with that. Until then, though, Slaine’s somewhat brutal world isn’t a bad one to lose yourself in for a while.