I really don’t remember when I first settled on my favourite game ever, but I can say with some certainty that it was sometime after Spring 1987 because that’s when Feud came out, and there’s never been anything else there ever since! I am now wondering what it would have been had I thought about it before then though… At the time, rather than now, it might have been the arcade versions of Elevator Action or Shao-Lin’s Road, but most likely would have been old-school platformer The Perils of Willy – Miner Willy of Manic Miner fame’s exclusive and wonderful outing on Commodore VIC-20 – or maybe even the Snoopy Tennis Nintendo Game & Watch!
Since then, I’ve barely been without Feud one way or another! When I got my Atari ST, the Spectrum +2 moved in with my brothers in their room, but I’d still regularly be in there playing Feud. Same when I was back home from university. The only time I can think of where it went into enforced hibernation was when I was back home again after that and the original PlayStation appeared, and there was just no room left for old stuff – a bit like where I’m sitting today, although we are now talking an awful lot more old stuff! Anyway, as the second half of the nineties progressed, and I was in my second job at an electronic components distributor and about to move in with my now-wife in London, we bought a PC we couldn’t afford and spent years paying it off together with a ton of interest on a brand-new credit card! Huge beast it was, but we got our money’s worth out it and it lasted through at least two more house moves before being passed down to my cousin.
And PC meant emulation, and that meant Feud was back on the agenda again! And that’s how we’re mostly still hooked up today, although in-between times getting Feud running on a Raspberry Pi was about the only thing I ever did with one back in 2009, and then in 2016 the Spectrum +2 came out of hibernation when we moved to a house big enough for my wife not to notice, and then a modded PlayStation Classic became my go-to emulation machine, and then I bought a MacBook to have it on too, and then I modded a PocketGo handheld, and now we’re playing Feud pretty much everywhere we go!
Feud is the perfect storm of right place and time nostalgia as well as simply being my favourite game ever, as evidenced by continuous play over the course of more than thirty of its thirty-five-years of history at this point! That right place and time specifically was the school summer holiday of 1987. I was fifteen years and a couple of months old, and we’re talking that last carefree summer before GCSEs, which would also mean turning sixteen, which would also mean getting a Saturday job that would then fill the holidays so they would never be the same again… In the meantime though, it was the best!
By coincidence, as I write this, that will be the same school summer holiday that’s next in line for my son, although we couldn’t be more different at that age – academy footballer who’s likely to be spending it full-time training shadowing the first team while he’s being shadowed by a parade of girls no doubt, versus super-nerd in training over here! No complaints though. Pig in muck that summer, not that we did anything outrageous or remotely interesting to anyone else! A typical day would be awake in time for The Pink Panther Show, then some Charlie Brown or Top Cat and Why Don’t You…? A couple of mornings in the week we’d go into Bedford town centre, and if I was lucky I’d come home with a new budget game such as Feud, then a bit of Spectrum action before it was time for the swimming pool!
My brother and me would either get a bus back into town or more likely walk the two and a half miles there every single weekday afternoon for the holiday inflatable session, where there’d be this huge insect thing with a big body and three legs on either side that was complete carnage! The fun police would never allow it now, but back then all they were worried about was running, ducking and petting, so there was the classic violent sideways shove, or stealth pulling of feet from under the water, or high-flying American wrestling moves from the top onto one of the legs to unbalance the ridiculous amount of people crammed onto it like it was the last lifeboat on the Titanic. And then it would empty into a writhing mass of submerged bodies falling on top of submerged bodies underneath its bulk. Then you’d pull yourself back up, or get someone else to do it (which was another opportunity to cause chaos once you had their hand) and start again.
Yeah, I know. You had to be there! But I was and we absolutely loved it, and we’d walk back home desperate to be walking in the opposite direction again the following day! Going home wasn’t so bad though – a whole evening with the Spectrum was waiting when we eventually got back, and it’s that precise moment that I’ll forever associate with Feud because I’m pretty sure that’s pretty much all I was playing that summer!
The fuse had been lit for a while though. Over the second half of that school year, I’d been working my way through The Lord of the Rings books on the bus home, and it had properly captivated me! More than anything, it was Tolkien’s spectacular world-building that got to me, and I’d be constantly referring back to the maps at the front of the book, both to keep tabs on the story’s progression within them and also to ground myself as closely as possible to the high-fantasy action. It’s without doubt one of the greatest tales ever told, and would have enormous influence on me and the evolution of my nerdy interests over the next few years – there was Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, then lapping up all of their fiction and the computer games, and there was Warhammer and RuneQuest, HeroQuest and Bloodbowl and Chainsaw Warrior and the like, and choose-your-own-adventures, pointless hundred-sided dice, White Dwarf magazine and hours spent on badly painted miniature figures!
More immediately though, there was Talisman… “Talisman is a game played in a mythical world of dragons and sorcery. As a warrior, wizard, priest, or one of eleven other characters with special powers, each player must set off on a quest to find the magic talisman. The journey will be filled with danger – monsters, traps and evil beings are waiting to defeat your player-character. With skill and luck you will survive to find the greatest treasure of them all. Only then will victory be yours.” My second edition of this 2-6 player reasonably beginner-level boardgame is dated 1985, which fortunately cost an awful lot less when I got it a couple of years later in 1987 than it would set you back today, otherwise there’d have been no chance of getting it for my birthday that May! I’d had my heart set on Talisman after falling in love with it at a friend’s house shortly before – it was just like being in Lord of the Rings! After sorting out your character, you set off around the three regions of the board, building up strength and ability in the Outer Region before progressing through the Middle and Inner Regions to hunt down a Talisman so you can enter the Valley of Fire to claim the Crown of Command, then try and take down your opponents to win the game. You roll your dice to move to different classical fantasy locations, which then creates card-based events, actions and adventures. It goes on a bit and there’s a lot of luck involved in winning, but the stories told on its beautiful board will suck you right into its world way better than any stuffy hand-drawn map at the front of a book from the school library!
And somewhere in-between first playing Talisman and getting my own copy, in parallel to being totally mesmerised by The Lord of the Rings (and just after being mesmerised by another game called Gunship, but that’s another story), my eyes moved to a review in the April 1987 issue of Computer & Video Games magazine, and in particular the wonderfully-Spectrum screenshot perched above a couple more from their marginally favoured Amstrad version. There was some medieval local yokel with his pitchfork in it heading towards his thatched hovel, with its great-looking fencing and stone walls built around some brightly coloured shrubbery, and a balding guy in a robe stood at the top taking it all in. And it was even more beautiful than that wonderful Talisman board that it immediately reminded me of, as though it were coming to life out of the page. I was enthralled before I’d even read the words attached to the pictures, or the 9 for playability and 10 for value scores!
Feud was the first release on Mastertronic’s new Bulldog label, which was primarily set up to distribute the best of their games in the US, although we’re now already on the downward slope for their traditional £1.99 games as everyone else was in on the budget act now, especially with the onslaught of pocket money rereleases of previously big-budget stuff. Mastertronic would soon have some success there too though, setting up another new label later in 1987, Ricochet, which sold half a million copies of Ghostbusters and did alright with The Way of the Exploding Fist too when they also bought out Melbourne House. I’ve never played a single other one of Bulldog Software’s games, although I do remember Streaker, a kind of riff on Mastertronic’s fantastic Spellbound, except here you’re a naked bloke running about looking for clothes to wear! A few others are vaguely familiar – Wolfan, Galletron, Jackie & Wide, for example, but none of them ever appealed in the slightest. Not like Feud!
Feud’s cassette box is a curious thing! The front is fine, depicting two wizards fighting in front of a giant frog-man in front of a castle that’s not in the game, but it works okay, so let’s head to the back, where we’ve got four reassuringly-Spectrum screenshots, the words “To win this ancient Feud you must “out-spell” your rival wizard Leanoric” followed by “In Hieke’s herb…” and lots of other words that are completely lost to the hole cut into it for the bit of plastic that goes in the middle one of the cassette cogs! Not that any of that makes much sense so far anyway, holes between words or not! Let’s see what’s going on inside, where you’ll find The Story, which is unfortunately equally hard to fathom because it’s written in someone’s idea of Olde English… “No one knows ‘ow long they have been ‘ere; even old Albert don’t recall ‘em comin’ an’ ‘e reckons ‘e might be over ‘undred!” All those apostrophes, and that’s less than a quarter of the first of three paragraphs written like that! Bulldog might have been Mastertronic’s attempt at “The Best of British” but I’m not sure anyone British was involved in writing this mess!
Anyway, I’ll try and paraphrase the rest of it for you! The simple folk of Little Dullford didn’t mind the two wizards that also lived there as long as they left them alone and kept their magic to themselves. Then a few years ago – the year that someone called Albert’s donkey died – the elder of the two, Leonoric, turned his brother Learic into a frog for a week, but after he turned him back again life went back to normal, with the two wizards seen out and about picking toadstools or buying herbs, but otherwise minding their own business. Two weeks ago everything changed though – the forest became silent and devoid of any life, but then the noises began, first shouting then all kinds of bangs and explosions and things best not thought about. Then, yesterday, Leonoric packed up and moved to the opposite side of the village, which Hieke (who we met on the back of the box before that hole appeared) reckons is a sign that they’re about to start a feud. Or Feud…
We’re back to normal English when we unfold the inlay card one final time, and it informs us that we’re taking the role of Learic, and that playing the game is simply a matter of moving through the kingdom collecting ingredients to make spells to use against your brother and opposing wizard Leanoric, but remember that he is doing exactly the same and is out to destroy you!
Firing up the game sees you next to your cauldron outside your hut in the top-left corner of the map, directly opposite to Leanoric in the bottom-right of the other side of the map. His position relative you is shown by a lit compass arrow, which points you in his general direction but you have no idea if he’s close or far, at least until it starts changing more rapidly when he’s near, and is an absolute godsend when you’re either the hunted if you’re worse for wear after an encounter with him, or the hunter when you’re tooled up with spells and ready to finish him off before he can heal himself. The health of the two wizards is shown next to the compass, with what I think are statues of them standing tall and proud at the start, but gradually being beaten down into the ground with their hands over their heads later until one of you is dead, then one way or another it’s game over – no scores, just black and white life or death and one winner. Next to your health is your spell book, and filling that up with ingredients is going to be your focus for most of the game’s hour or so duration…
As you travel the map, you’re occasionally going to come across herbs. Walk over one to collect it, and it’s going to be highlighted in your spell book. Collect the two ingredients needed for each of the twelve spells, and you can head back to your cauldron to mix it. Once you’ve mixed a spell, you’re armed with it, so you just hold down fire and flick left or right to find it in your spell book, the press fire to cast when you need it. And that makes it sound way more complicated than it actually is! All of the strategy isn’t in complex controls, but in how you manage your spells. These include the offensive stuff that’s going to take down Leanoric like fireballs (requiring dragonsteeth and mousetail) and lighting (which needs cud weed and knap weed); there’s also healing and protection spells, as well as mischievous things like reverse, which makes Leanoric (or you if it’s coming back the other way) do the opposite to what he intended; finally, there’s more tactical spells like speed ups, teleport back to your cauldron and invisibility. Some of the spells, like teleport, are one-off, and others, like fireball, for example, will work repeatedly for a few seconds. Once they’re used, you need to collect their ingredients and mix them again if you want another go.
Typically, stocking up on all the offensive stuff at once is going to take down most of Leanoric’s health if you can make it all hit before he runs off, but all-out attack is no shortcut – he’ll be healing and it will take a few attempts, or a bit of creativity… For example, you’ll know when he’s armed himself with something nasty by a squelchy sound effect when he appears close by, which means he’s on the warpath. If you can get him close to one of the villagers wandering about while he’s chasing you though, you could cast a freeze on him to stop him in his tracks, then turn the villager into a zombie right on top of him for some decent damage before they all go back to normal. Another cool spell creates a doppleganger of yourself which is great for causing confusion when you’re under attack, but also a nice distraction when you’re trying to lift the mass of herbs you’ll find in Hieke’s garden – if he spots you he’ll mercilessly and quickly hunt you down through its mazy layout, and most likely take out way more of your health in one go than your brother ever will!
Hieke’s herb garden, taking up a large part of the bottom-left of the map, is going to be the main source of peril (and definitely the main source of tension) unless you find yourself caught short with no health and suddenly face-to-face with Leanoric as you flip to the next screen, or in a race with him to grab the herb you both really need at the same time! Otherwise, travelling the map and collecting ingredients is a meandering joy! I reckon you’re looking at about 20 screens wide by about 12 high, and just beyond the middle you’ve got a river running vertically across the map, with three bridges for crossing along the way, and there’s a main road running horizontally, which you can go through one end of and back out the other, Pac-Man style.
Your little hut and cauldron at the top are surrounded by these sinister-looking petrified trees and the odd gravestone, but head east and you’ll soon come across another maze of crumbling stone walls, leading you to the river on one side and the main village to the south, with its huts and pond and some great fences… I’ve never thought much about my favourite fences in video games, but these wonderfully designed primitive little picket fences are probably them; definitely up there with Silent Hill 2’s tactile but decaying metal ones! Below the village there’s less sinister wooded areas, and Heike’s garden beyond another maze of hedges this time. Crossing the river here takes you into the perilous pine forest that’s home to Leanoric’s hut and cauldron in the bottom-right of the map, then upwards will take you through more hedge and fence mazes, and across the stone-lined main road into more woods, dotted with occasional outlying huts and large ceremonial-type stones. And throughout the map, you’ll find your twenty-four herbs, always located in the same place, so mapping is a very good idea until you’ve been playing it for the best part of four decades and know it by heart!
Feud has a very unique art style, with just a hint of zoomed-in Sabre Wulf, combining the simplicity of key elements on a totally black background with attention to detail all over the place, to the extent that you very quickly stop noticing the totally black background and instead focus on the tufts of grass along the bottom of the uneven fencing, or the flower peeking out from behind one of the gravestones, or the subtle shadowing on the trees and rocks. What you will immediately notice is that this totally black background affords the Spectrum all kinds of colour opportunities that aren’t often open to it, from the red wood on the huts with their yellow thatched roofs and blue chimneys poking out of the top, to the individual petals and leaves on each of the herbs. There’s a sense of place and a weightiness to everything too, with trees feeling imposing and buildings feeling suitably medieval, while everywhere there’s still signs of ruin from even further back in time.
While a lot of that is also transferred to the large and polished character sprites, unfortunately the colour did have to be sacrificed in that department to avoid any more colour clash than there very occasionally (but forgivably) is, so you’ll be making-do with some very wizard-like detail in the gorgeous animation of the shuffling of your robes instead, although a couple of the villagers wandering around the beautifully populated countryside do get a nice splash of colour on their tunics! All of this is bringing me right back to where we started with The Lord of the Rings though, and being in exactly the right place at the right time to put me in mind of The Shire – you read those books, then look at Feud, and you’re looking at The Shire that was in your mind’s eye, and as any fan will know, that’s a pretty wonderful place to be spending time in!
Apart from that magical squelchy white noise we talked about earlier, which comes in several variants, as well the constant pitter-patter of Learic’s feet, there’s not a huge amount going on sound-wise on the Spectrum version, so this is a good opportunity to take a look elsewhere! Let’s start with the Amstrad CPC version, which starts with the most insane loading screen you’ve ever seen, and a wild-eyed, bald-headed and bushy white and rainbow-bearded wizard holding his staff and looking all angry! And now we’ve gone from one extreme to the other, because when the game loads you’re greeted with some big hip-hop beats that are going to keep going and going and going the whole time you’re playing! You do kind of zone out after a while, mainly because there’s no hugely memorable melodies in the couple of minutes before it starts repeating, but it’s not terrible. And that’s very much true of the sound effects when spells start being thrown around too, as well as some cool black and white strobe effects over the visuals! The graphics are far more colourful than the Spectrum version, although a little less well defined and more blocky, but it’s a striking game all the same, and a very playable one too. The map is laid out differently to the Spectrum version, but is made up of similar elements, and on the whole it’s pretty much the same game, meaning it’s great!
The Commodore 64 version I’m not so keen on. It’s got the same mad loading screen, and a wonderful, deep and sensuous take on that music, but then everything is small and predictably brown and chunky. Learic moves around like he’s on ice, which might also explain why he gets stuck on the scenery so easily, and crossing the tiny bridges over the tiny river is such a positional nightmare; as a positive, there’s some nice grass either side of the river though! The environmental graphics are sparse, so we’ve lost all of that wonderful atmosphere in the other versions, and it also makes navigating the map a chore because you’ve lost most of your waypoints. And that attention to detail we talked about before clearly all got used up in the Spectrum version! Walk behind a tree or a hut and you can see your character through it, or walk across a bridge and your head will disappear behind one of its stones and in front of the next! Picking up herbs is a pain too, with you having to position yourself just right then press fire rather than walk over it like in the Spectrum version, and the only feedback that you’ve actually got it is by keeping an eye on your spell book to see if it was added. You’ll have plenty of time to grab all those goodies in Hieke’s garden here though, because he couldn’t care less about you being there, and even if he could, you can just walk straight through the maze of hedges that make up this area anyway. The status area is all washed-out too, and the whole thing just lacks any soul whatsoever. Except the music, maybe!
Before we stop feeling sorry for ourselves on the C64 and head back to the Spectrum version of Feud, I’m going to indulge myself with a bit of a countdown! We’ve not quite covered my top ten games of all time here, with SSX3, Gauntlet and Elite still to come, but we have now covered my top five:
1. Feud on ZX Spectrum
2. Kick Off on Atari ST
3. Resident Evil 4 on GameCube
4. Renegade on ZX Spectrum
5. Silent Hill 2 on PlayStation 2
A couple of them at least have appeared in a few all-time lists, but I’m guessing that Feud hasn’t topped many of them! Unless we’re talking magazine scores for value, Feud might not be a perfect game, but it’s a perfect game for me! And going back to Talisman, it shares a lot of that boardgame ethos, where everything might be in the same place, but you never know where the adventure is going to take you this time. While I’m sure I could give it a bit of a speed-run by now, a typical game of Feud for me is 90% a sedate wander through the whole map, taking in the slow-paced, rural Middle Ages lifestyle and locations, collecting herbs as I come across them. Once I’m done with that, I’ll go back to my hut, mix up all my spells and then think about the other 10%… Or if Hieke or Leanoric have already caused me a bit of damage, I’ll heal myself up and then replace the balm and feverfew I’ve just used and then think about it! There’s rarely any rush, and like its setting, it never gets old!
While we’re on the boardgame tip, there’s another similarity – no saving or loading here, it’s all either won or lost in a single sitting. And then you start again, and again, and again… I’ve no idea how many times I’ve played Feud! Enough to generally win nowadays, but it hasn’t been about the winning for a very long time. Feud first spoke to me at a relatively mundane but seemingly very emotionally impactful moment in my life, and the circumstances it found itself in, as well as the company it kept in The Lord of the Rings and Talisman, was certainly the foundation for where it sits at the top of that little chart we just looked at. But I also very quickly learnt to speak back, and in no time the red wooden hut with the yellow thatched roof and blue chimney sitting on that foundation as a result was the double-whammy, and I was quickly and suddenly perfectly on its wavelength, and it on mine, and that’s why it sits where it does for me as my favourite game of all time!
In slightly less prosaic language, Feud’s setting is beautiful to me, and the way it conveys it in that minimal 8-bit style has always fired my imagination, and its premise is simple to anyone, but with plenty of scope for your own strategy, and the challenge is addictive and just enough to keep you coming back for thirty-five years and counting. And all of this from a budget release! Unbelievable, and apart from the price of the two blank floppies that still house Kick Off and Elite for my Atari ST, this is without any doubt the best £1.99 I’ve ever spent… Just keep the bit about the floppies to yourself!