Like everyone, there are dozens and dozens of games on every system I was lucky enough to have that I’d have loved to have owned, but obviously it just wasn’t possible. And if we’re excluding the pre-computer and console handheld electronic games like Grandstand”s Invader From Space or the Snoopy Tennis Game & Watch that, given their cost, were realistically only ever going to be one-offs, I can still pinpoint the very first of those!
I used to get a regular Commodore VIC-20 mail order software catalogue in the post. I’m not sure where from, or if I ever bought anything from it, and I’m also not sure the games in it ever changed much either, but I’d always look forward to it arriving and I’d always look out longingly for its blurry screenshot of Shadowfax! These were some serious graphics all the same though, hyped up to photo-realism by the accompanying description of Postern’s 1982 Lord of the Rings horsey shoot ‘em up! The horse animation is very impressive though, based on those famous early motion-picture animation galloping horse photos by Eadweard Muybridge in the 1800s. The Horse in Motion, in fact! Anyway, Shadowfax had you playing as Gandalf on his horse, Shadowfax, shooting magic at oncoming Nazgul, although if there’d been as many ring wraiths on the prowl in the book as there was here then Frodo wouldn’t have got very far! Anyway, despite having the best horse animation to grace any game until Kane trotted onto the Commodore 64, there’s really not a lot to it, and in retrospect I was better off saving my money for the likes of Gridrunner and Jetpac!
Don’t worry, I’m not going to list every other game I’ve never bought, but there were a few notable ones on the Spectrum that still irk me (completely irrationally, I know, because I can now simply access them at any time on pretty much anything I like)! There were the ones I’d played to death at friends’ houses that simply predated me having a Spectrum and were either not around to buy anymore, or more likely, there were just higher priorities by then – things like Chequered Flag, Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, Alcatraz Harry and Football Manager. There were also the X-rated text adventures Dracula and Jack the Ripper that I was too young to even bother asking for, though they were the exception – the vast majority were simply the ones that money couldn’t buy… The Way of the Exploding Fist, The Hobbit, Elite, Batman (isometric and The Movie), The Great Escape, Top Gun, Rambo (blessing in disguise), Starglider and so on. The same applies for the Atari ST, although to a much lesser extent because I did have a Saturday job by then, but more so I’ve been filling no end of gaps over there for a couple of years now, with stuff we’ve covered here previously like The New Zealand Story, Pit-Fighter, Buggy Boy and Ghostbusters II, as well as the likes of Lotus Turbo Challenge II, Badlands, Battle Chess, Turbo Out Run, Rainbow Islands, TV Sports Football and I’m going to stop there because I’ve really spent a fortune on this that I don’t need reminding of!
Most of us hardly did badly though, but for all of the games we quite justifiably couldn’t have, there’s one above all others that I still haunts me to this day, and that’s Roland’s Rat Race! I was a Rat Fan, you see! In fact, I was and am a bit of a Roland Rat Superstar mega-fan. I love him! But there was no copy of Roland’s Rat Race among the collection of stuffed toys, clothes, bedding, lunch boxes, mugs, erasers, pencil cases, annuals, VHS tapes and, of course, his hit records! I wouldn’t get a Spectrum for well over another year, so at the time was never really an option anyway, although in that world where you can’t buy a fraction of the games you really, really want, even the power of Rat-fandom probably isn’t going to make you part with your cash on that dubious version over Tapper, Exploding Fist, Highway Encounter, Spy vs Spy and the eye-popping Popeye, all taking up magazine review space at exactly the same time! We’ll come back to the Spectrum game later I’m sure, because as I write it’s been a very long time since I first and last made the judgement that it was a stinker, but had I owned a Commodore 64 would things have been different?
Before we answer that, although I can’t really contemplate anyone not having at least some grounding in Roland Rat and his mythos, for the sake of completeness we should briefly recap! He’s a UK television puppet from the early eighties who lives in The Ratcave below King’s Cross railway station, accompanied by his guinea pig girlfriend Glenis, his brother Little Reggie, sidekick Errol the Hamster and number one Rat Fan Kevin the Gerbil. He first appeared in 1983 on the fledgling breakfast TV show, TV-am and, in fact, quickly became its saviour because the novelty of this new breakfast TV thing wore thin almost instantly, but he’d take viewership from just 100,000 to nearly two million during his two year heyday on there! After debuting on TV-am’s Easter special that year, he hit the big time with Rat on the Road during the summer holidays, which kicked off his global adventures during every school holiday during 1984. I can still hear the theme to that Easter’s Roland Goes East… “Kowloon, Kowloon Hong Kong, we like Hong Kong, it’s the place to be!” The following Easter, we got the first incarnation of Roland’s Rat Race, a quiz show that introduced one of my favourite sidekicks, D’Arcy De Farcey, and then that summer we got his last big hoorah on TV-am, The OWRRAS Summer Spectacular, standing for Official Worldwide Roland Rat Appreciation Society, before he finally signed off in the autumn half term with Roland Live.
He then did the unthinkable and jumped ship to the BBC, where we got his chat show, Roland Rat The Series, as well as Ratman, and Tales of the Rodent Sherlock Holmes, then yet another children’s game show version of Roland’s Rat Race. That all lasted for six years, then he ended up on Channel Five in late nineties for his series LA Rat, covering his exploits in Los Angeles (where he lives beneath the Hollywood sign in Ratcavetwo), then in 2003 he was back where he started two decades earlier on ITV as a children’s presenter. Later notable TV appearances included a puppet special of the dreadful quiz show The Weakest Link, the even more dreadful Big Brother, and marginally less dreadful light entertainment something or other The One Show in 2010, which is about as recent as I can find. But there was also his music career that we should mention too, with Rat Rapping, Love Me Tender and No.1 Rat Fan charting between 1983 and 1985, as well as albums The Album and The Cassette Of The Album, followed by Living Legend in 1986, although let’s not forget his 2008 Christmas comeback single, Ding Dong Ding Dong (Christmas Down The Drain)! Roland Rat Superstar indeed!
Not being a Rat Fan in 1984 and 1985 in particular must have been horrendous because his face was on everything and his “novelty” music was being played everywhere! And it was into this frenzy that Roland’s Rat Race the video game was created by Denton Designs and unleashed onto Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum in the autumn of 1985 by the mighty Ocean Software – surely the only publisher of the time with the clout to handle this kind of license! In the game, Roland’s already hit the big time on breakfast TV, and unlike his cohort who still live in the sewers under London, he’s got a nice little gaff in the suburbs. Unfortunately, we join him the very day that The Ratmobile, his bright pink 1953 Ford Anglia, is having trouble starting, so if he wants to get to the TV studio in time, he’s going to have to go old-school and find his way through the once-familiar maze of drains and tunnels beneath the city to get to TV-am.
We should delve into the original instructions now, which further explain that if that wasn’t a bad enough start to your day, Roland’s friends have also been kidnapped by horrible “Nasties” who have evolved in the “sub-earthly” empire under the city of London. Then the nonsense really picks up… “Enormous wellington boots are stomping around down there waiting for Roland to appear. As Roland ventures further into the depths below he will have to beware of the nasty bats which just love to have a nip at large furry superstars. Roland has his Instant stic-o-matic glue gun that fires small blobs of instant glue that will firmly stick any nasties that come in contact with it until they manage to work themselves free. Roland can climb around the ladders underground, and can move quite fast through the drains (unless of course he is stupid enough to get stuck in his own glue!). The drains are large and complex, and unless Roland can work out the map he will need to think hard and fast so as not to get lost. One of the tunnels is blocked by a large door. If Roland is ever going to get out again he will need to find the pieces to the door and the key. The passage that Roland used to enter the underground drains has been blocked by the nasties so there is only one way out – the hard way!”
Into the breach then, and we’re off to rescue our friends and get to the studio in time for the show, which involves finding nine pieces of door and its key, scattered randomly around twenty-four screens of platforms, pipes, drains and tunnels, then dropping them off at the blocked tunnel exit so some kind of magic can happen there to unblock it, releasing your friends in the process and allowing for the final dash to the convenient lift from bowels of the sewers up to TV-am. It’s all laid out as two lots of twelve screens, starting near the surface with rush-hour traffic (including a Sinclair C5!) driving about at the very top, then you’ll eventually come across an exit to the lower levels with an underground train occasionally turning up along the very bottom that can both help and hinder!
As someone with no sense of direction, it took a while to get my bearings, but once you’re past the initial bewilderment of loads of very similar screens, each with multiple branching pathways, it’s actually all pretty logical, with different levels on each screen accessed by either ramps or ladders, or via a simple maze of connecting tunnels, each made up of several levels of pipes. These also provide a bit of respite from the relentless march of the wellington boots patrolling the regular screens, which ideally you want to steer clear of because they’re going to quickly drain your energy, especially if they get right on your tail, which is pretty much game over! You do have your glue gun at your disposal to slow them down, but a rogue shot is going to slow you down too if you walk over it. That train along the bottom is even more detrimental to your health than the wellies, but you can anticipate that arriving by its whistle, giving you a chance to lay down some glue to stop it, allowing you to jump on for a safe ride to wherever you want to go in those lower levels. On top of your regular energy meter, your glue gun has one too, but as well as bits of door about the place, there’s plenty of apples and hamburgers lying around for a health boost, and extra glue too.
By the time you’ve got anywhere near picking up enough pieces of the door, you’re going to know exactly where you are and where you need to get to at any given time, and actually, you’ll probably be sick of the sight of it all by then too! Roland’s Rat Race is very C64 circa 1985, but I mean that in an endearing way. Yes, there’s plenty of its legendary rainbow of colours, and it’s got its fair share of overly-blocky sprites, but Roland himself is a joy! You really couldn’t ask for more authenticity, and the same goes for the detail in the crumbling brickwork and clever highlighting in the main pipes in the background too. There is only so much variety you can expect of a sewer system though, and in the end the biggest challenge to both navigation and your will to finish the game is everything looking virtually the same, even before you’ve been that way for the twentieth time! The slightly irrelevant background music doesn’t help either – it’s jolly enough, but really not enough for prolonged play; I do like the splat of the glue gun though!
If you’re okay with stepping back and forth between screens to reset rogue wellington boots to somewhere you’re not planning on being any time soon, then as long as you only use those health and glue pickups when you need them it’s not a massively difficult game. It’s just all the rest of that back and forth, back and forth… And walking past each bit of door over and over because you can only carry one back to the entrance at a time is often soul-destroying! Once you’ve got them all it’s a bit anticlimactic too – that final dash to the chair-lift thing up to the studio simply involves walking right to left while avoiding a couple of worms and some electric floor panels, then down comes the lift with Errol and Kevin on board and you get on and go up… And up… And up… The end!
This would have been the perfect budget release – a couple of hours of enjoyment means your money’s worth and you don’t have to feel guilty for never touching it again, but £7.90? It’s a tough ask, even when it’s your favourite Superstar doing the asking! A slightly less tough ask, though, is the £6.90 asking price for the ZX Spectrum version… Maybe? I don’t know what Sinclair User was on, but this is not a 4/5 game! The 66% that Crash gave it is way generous too! In fact, my memory of this game was spot on – it stinks and I don’t even know where to begin! Okay, we’ll begin with Roland Rat. He’s too big for the play area, which is now all cramped because they’ve had to size that up too accordingly. And gone is the delicately coloured, almost cuddly toy-like main character sprite, and instead we have an indistinct, totally white thing that might be a rodent but only by the power of suggestion. And then it shuffles past a piece of red or classic magenta brickwork, taking “indistinct” to whole new levels with some truly horrific colour clash; now, I’ve no problem with a bit of colour clash, and there’s even some games (like Everyone’s a Wally) where I think it even adds to its charm several decades on, but not this!
We’ve now lost all the detail in the C64’s backgrounds too, with just plain blue or plain red in their place, and while the pipes still look like pipes, they’re not carefully crafted pipes like we’ve now come to expect! And traversing all of this is such a trudge too – everything’s moving at a snail’s pace even before you get the glue out, and entering a new screen is so painful as you wait for everything to be drawn for you, like it was written in BASIC! And how could I nearly forget the sound? Well, pretty easily as there’s not much to it, but probably for the best! In its defence, the scaled up graphics do make for slightly more distinct navigation around the screen, with proper ladders and stairs which could sometimes be a challenge to identify during the first few games over on Commodore 64 (although my colour-blindness may also have come into play there). And the Spectrum train that trundles along the bottom of the lower sewers is a proper old train, about three times the size of the C64’s tiny bullet one (albeit about three times slower to travel on)!
Again, as a budget game, and even without the Roland Rat association, you’d have probably been happy enough with this for all its faults, but you really don’t want it at full price… Although looking at it today, maybe that wouldn’t have been such a bad investment after all! Turns out it’s not an easy game to come by now on either platform, with just one Commodore 64 version showing up on eBay at the time of writing at £19.99, or £6.50 for one with a torn cover. Over on the Spectrum, also just two copies, one at £11.99 and one at £14.95… Even more than a rare 1980s boxed and unused Roland Rat Superstar Soap! Must admit I’m tempted by most of the above though – small price to pay to exorcise the ghost of rodents past!