As I write, I’ve literally just discovered that the stylish little grey and neon cardboard box containing six cassettes that was bundled with the original ZX Spectrum +2 is actually called Soft 188! Had no idea it even had a name – after all, it’s just a box with some random games in it, not really any kind of curated compilation, and never even got a look in on any of the adverts when the machine launched towards the end of 1986. That did make opening this mysterious, unmarked and unannounced package a really nice surprise when my brother and me opened up our joint present on Christmas morning 1986 though, especially when it turned out that the C90 cassette full of Spectrum classics that a friend had also given me for Christmas that year turned out to only have one working “classic” on it – vector-based helicopter sim Tomahawk, which actually is a bit of a classic when I’m not being facetious!
Of the six games that made up Soft 888, I was only aware of two of them at the time, and one of those, Punchy, was something I’d just sold with my Commodore VIC-20 – a condition of getting the Spectrum +2 to help pay for it. It certainly wasn’t my favourite game on the system either, so any kind of initial excitement rested on the one game that I hadn’t only heard of, but was also plastered (or bandaged!) all over the Amstrad CPC adverts in the very same issues of Computer & Video Games magazine that also featured all those +2 ones (from the same company by then as well) where it didn’t get a mention! Wherever I’d seen it though, I was over the moon that Oh Mummy was in there, making it an easy choice the very first game we ever fired up on the +2! We’re going to come back to Oh Mummy in a bit, but apart from that, as you can probably tell, the rest of the package was a little underwhelming, so I’m not sure that anything else ever got a look in again once we’d got to the shops the day after Boxing Day to get a proper game. And that’s been my overriding impression ever since – the games that came with the +2 were a bit crap! Us being here today is as good an excuse as any to see if that’s still justified though, so before we get to Oh Mummy, I wanted to have a quick look at each of those other five games and see if I’m doing any of them a disservice!
We’re going to start with Punchy. This originally came out in 1983 and was actually a redesign of what had previously been Hunchy, a Hunchback rip-off that was a bit too close to the mark for Century Electronics’ liking, who were behind that original arcade game which would have quite the love affair with the Spectrum and elsewhere in its own right. Back to Punchy, it’s sixteen screens of pure platforming hell as your policeman, Bobby, tries to rescue Judy from the evil wife-beater Punch while crossing alligator pits on magic carpets, collecting sausages and avoiding custard pies, rotten tomatoes and the like. Get to the end of the screen and rather than ringing Quasimodo’s bell, you’re going to “rock the baby” and be treated to some quite terrifying early synthesised speech saying so! It’s not as terrifying as the gameplay though – this is proper old-school brutal, requiring totally unfair pixel-perfect jumping, timed to the millisecond, or it’s instant death. The VIC-20 version is by no means easy, but I always thought it was fun, and it looks way better on there than here (even if its sound effects are even more brutal than the gameplay)! Stick with that, or preferably Hunchback.
It’s at the top of the box, so we’ll have a look at Alien Destroyer next. There’s a nonsensical story about you being the last human left on the fortress planet of Roolfhtenin, tasked with the job of keeping the evil forces of Crabok at bay for as long as possible with your laser bases. About the only thing I appreciate about this Galaxians mess from 1984 is the honesty of the instruction booklet… “They have unlimited forces; all you can do is buy time.” That said, compared to the game it’s aping, there’s no threat whatsoever for a while! The first wave of invaders move left and right on the screen – and note I say “on the screen” rather than across it – waiting for you to either pick them off or drive them insane with the horrific sound effects coming out of your laser base! Eventually one of them will flicker downwards instead of across and maybe even get a shot away, but you’ll have just about cleared the rest by then. The action picks up a little bit as you move onwards, but the invaders still keep jumping left a bit then right a bit, never shooting at you except when one of them decides to make a break downwards, but even if it does hit you you’ll welcome death’s cold embrace by this point!
My ambition for this list isn’t just to slate everything in turn, but I’m genuinely hoping to find a hidden gem I’d missed before that we can have a proper look at here later on, so to that end I’m going with Disco Dan now, because while I wasn’t familiar with what it was at the time, I think I knew the name so it must have had something about it! Right? Well, it makes a good second first impression, with the most ZX Spectrum tune you can possibly imagine playing on the title screen – think that Daley Thompson’s Decathlon sound and you’re somewhere near! Disco Dan came from 1984, and in “this new 3D machine code game,” poor Dan Dan The Atomiser Man has to run down some psychedelic 3D tunnels, avoiding vagrant particles and jumping over laser things, then negotiate a screen full of atomic fuel rods that need to have their radiation levels decreased by jumping between them in order and avoiding more vagrant particles. I reckon this would have been pretty impressive in 1984, which is probably why the name stuck with me, and I reckon it’s still pretty impressive now too! And I know precisely what I did when I first played it because I’d have been happy jumping about in tunnels, but once I reached the end there’s no way I was going to try and work out numbered fuel rod puzzles at the back end of 1986. Nowadays though, this is really good and I think coming here next wasn’t a bad shout!
Two to go, and I’m going with Treasure Island next because not only did I not know it at the time, but I have absolutely no recollection of it now either! Also from 1984, this is based on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, with you playing Jim Hawkins, making his way to Treasure Island then tackling murderous pirates as he explores 64 sections of the map to Ben Gunn’s cave and the treasures within. Before we go on, I always appreciate a game not only describing itself as “exciting” in its own instructions, but also telling you that the treasure map you’ll find therein is “attractive!” Unfortunately, I’m struggling to verify either though, not that either of the above is necessarily untrue (although I do have my suspicions), but I can’t even get to what those instructions also describe as the “main game” on Treasure Island to find out! The first screen has you avoiding Blind Pew who, in fact, appears to be the the outlines of three stereotypical elderly folk with walking sticks, to board the good ship Hispaniola. The problem is that the merest touch from any of them means instant death, and by “merest touch” I mean vaguely share the same quarter of the screen with any of them! By some miracle I did make it onto the gangplank a couple of times, where you now have to avoid capture by the mutinous crew, which translates to your tiny sprite jumping between barrels from one side of the screen to the other, avoiding the grabbing hands of some gargantuan pirates, but even Punchy wouldn’t attempt this brutality! This one really stinks, and as exciting as it might profess to get later, there is zero fun to be had beforehand! And, without doubt, this has the worst collision detection I’ve ever seen in a game, which is some accolade!
Last one, and it’s Crazy Golf, and surely something like crazy golf can’t stink up the place as well, can it? Well, it’s from Mr Micro in 1983, and we’ve just found out about their pedigree with Treasure Island, but before we try it out we need to stop off at the instructions because they’re pure gold! “This fun game features unique graphic obstacles which must be circumvented before the ball can be “putted” into the hole. The par for each hole is displayed, and a novel direction pointer combined with the force indicator enable you to try to equal or better par. Owners of the Currah U-Speech add-on Module will be able to hear the “useful” and “enlightened” comments of the speaking caddy. Use with keyboard or joystick. CRAZY GOLD IS CRAZY BUT FUN FOR EVERYONE.” Wow! With the game finally loaded, we can now step through some of those points, although unfortunately I don’t own a Currah U-Speech add-on Module so the speaking caddy is going to keep his or her enlightened comments to themselves for now! I can tell you that the “unique graphic obstacles” are just straight lines though, but to the game’s credit the par for each whole is indeed displayed; the “novel direction pointer” was a little disappointing when it turned out to be an arrow though, and the force indicator is just another line that extends the longer you hold down fire. All sounds like something that the Atari 2600 might have dreamt up, although that version of golf was at least fun, which unfortunately is the final nail in the coffin against this one’s bold claims!
At this point we can now conclude that at least half of Soft 888’s games were stinkers in one way or another, but if they weren’t then I suppose that Punchy’s inclusion wouldn’t be that horrendous, if you’re some kind of sado-masochist, and Disco Dan turned out to be not bad at all, which just leaves us with Oh Mummy! I believe this was originally developed by Gem Software and published by Amsoft for the Amstrad CPC in 1984, and it was part of the game bundles you’d get with that too, hence the advert we talked about at the beginning. As well as the Spectrum, it also appeared on the MSX and the somewhat obscure Tatung Einstein, a UK-developed Taiwanese beast of a machine, mainly aimed at small businesses but, thanks to its reliability and big memory, it also became a bit of a development favourite for companies programming and porting games for the more popular home computers!
It’s not a wholly original concept, and I’m not talking about Pac-Man either, although you could argue it’s the opposite side of the same coin. Instead, we need to go back to Konami’s 1981 arcade game Amidar, which in turn might also feature on one side or the other of that same coin as, put very simply, you need to go everywhere on the screen while avoiding enemies! More specifically, you need to travel around the whole perimeter of each rectangle making up the screen before moving to the next, alternating between an ape collecting coconuts and avoiding head-hunters on even-numbered levels, and a paint roller painting lines and avoiding pigs on the odd ones before a bonus game based on the Japanese lot-drawing game, Amidakuji, which I think the whole thing is kind of inspired by, but it looks way too complicated for me to confirm or not! Anyway, Amidar isn’t very complicated and certainly isn’t very easy, but it’s crazy addictive and loads of fun, whether the arcade original or the Atari 2600 port, which I’m far more familiar with.
Back to Oh Mummy, I’m going to pick up the scenario from the very comprehensive in-game instructions… You’re in charge of a party of archaeologists sent to Egypt by the British museum to explore ancient tombs. All of the tombs have five levels, and each level contains treasure, a magic scroll, a key, a royal mummy and two guardians, and one of those guardians is going to be awakened by your entry and immediately start hunting you down, seeking revenge for your sacrilege! The second guardian will only awaken to join in the chase if you unearth it during your reverse-Pac-Man excavations around each screen’s maze, but you do have a bit of defence if you come across that magic scroll, which can be used to kill one of them if you get caught short, but only once and only on the level it was found. Once you’ve also found the mummy and the exit key, you can go through it to the next.
Once you’ve discovered the five mummies spread across the five levels of the tomb, you’ll get a press release from the British Museum saying it’s successfully plundered another tomb belonging to a foreign country, and also a reward for your efforts (an extra life as far as I’ve ever seen) before moving on to the next tomb, which is going to feature more cunning guardians, as well as any that survived the previous level, so make sure you use that scroll when you find it! Gameplay itself couldn’t be simpler, with just four directional keys moving you around each of the squares that make up the level, and once you’ve got all the way around one its contents will be revealed and automatically collected; another defensive tactic is taking shelter in any treasure houses you uncover if you’re in trouble with the guardians, and you’ll usually get a generous number of those per level too.
And you need to make the most of all of these small but advantageous tactics because Oh Mummy doesn’t pull any punches, and you’ll be doing very well if you can recover five mummies from a single tomb! The main thing to remember, though, is that as tempting as it is to excavate the whole screen, it’s not Pac-Man and you don’t need to – find the mummy and find the key and get out of there, although while that will increase your chances of survival, it’s not really going to help your high scores! And neither is choosing anything but the easiest of the three difficulties at the start, though you can speed up or slow down character movement to your taste there too. Actually, I’ve got one gripe with Oh Mummy and that’s with the character movement, and I think it might be based in its keyboard-only controls, though I have tried and failed to mimic the control I’d be looking for in a joystick too… You need to be very precise about where you change direction because if you’re not perfectly lined up with where you want to head off to left or right or up or down, you’re not going anywhere, and when you’re in full chase mode that’s no good to you! What you want to be doing, if you imagine holding a joystick or controller, is easing around the diagonal as you turn into the corner, so the change in direction happens smoothly and in one motion. Unfortunately, it’s all very binary (if four directions can be binary!), so can feel a bit too sticky when you’re in a sticky situation, and while you do quickly acclimatise to this, it will still be responsible for most of your deaths later on!
As soon as you load up the game, you’re hit by a well known piece of Egyptian music, although for the life of me I couldn’t think of the name so did a bit of research, and it turns out that the reason I couldn’t think of the name is that it has both loads of names and also none! Firstly, you know the song by the words… “All the girls in France do the hokey pokey dance, and the way they shake is enough to kill a snake.” Or there’s a completely different variation that you also know… “On the planet Mars all the women smoke cigars, and every puff they take is enough to kill a snake.” That had a school playground variation about the land of Mars where the women don’t where bras too! Anyway, now we’ve got the Eygptian melody (which it’s also known as), it goes by the name of the hookie-kookie dance or the hoochie-coochie dance, or The Streets of Cairo or Dance of the Midway or even Coochi-Coochi Polka! The thing is that no one really knows where it comes from; going all the way back to 1864, it appears in a trumpet piece called the Arabian Song, but then that can seemingly be traced back to Afro-European folk songs from centuries earlier. And I wasn’t expecting that lot from trying to describe a grating ten-second loop of vintage ZX Spectrum music!
It’s great for encouraging you to start the game as fast as humanly possibly though, when the extent of the sound effects calm down to the usual constant monotone blip of your footsteps! Graphically it’s about as simple as could be too, with some very basic icons representing your discoveries and some very basic (and virtually BASIC) character sprites devoid of any animation apart from an unintentional flicker as they move. Where it excels is in its equally simple but increasingly bold use of the Spectrum’s colour palette to fill in the different kinds of blocks as you uncover them, eventually turning the screen into a veritable Egyptian rainbow, complemented by any “empty” blocks which remain a sandy orange… Hang on, orange on the Spectrum isn’t simple at all – Spectrum doesn’t do orange! This is a very clever early example of alternating red and yellow pixels to make you think it does though, and all together it makes for an impressive (if simple!) vista!
Gameplay like Oh Mummy’s has no need for trinkets and baubles, but if you’re desperate to have them dangling off it, there’s a 2021 homebrew reworking that has you covered there! All the smooth movement and cartoon animation you can shake a stick at, and there’s fancy footprints all over the place and it’s got actual mummies (I think) shambling around after you. The sound has all but gone though, the colours are more muted, and speaking of colours, where’s that cool orange? I thought all Spectrum homebrews had to have orange in them now, not least when they’re remakes of actual games that tried it originally! Speaking Spanish helps too, but none of this is really for me and I’m fine with the original.
That said, I’d probably rather play Amidar over any version of Oh Mummy for its more refined mechanics, but as we found out when we looked at Desert Falcon, I do have a thing about Ancient Egypt! What the hell, I reckon there’s room in all of our lives for two maze chasers that aren’t Pac-Man, though now I’m thinking about Dark Caverns on Atari 2600 too and we might have a problem! Okay, I can manage three! And at the very least, if we’re talking competition, we should be talking Treasure Island and Crazy Golf, and when we’re talking Soft 888, there only one winner. Oh Mummy!