We’ve now covered a lot of games on a lot of systems, but while there’s a few such as Chopper Command on Atari 2600 or my top ten ZX Spectrum loading screens that have taken forever to finish for one reason or another, out of all of those there’s still only one I’ve ever started writing about but never finished, and that is Death Chess 5000! “You may thinking this is ‘just another chess game’, but you would be wrong. This is the latest and greatest and most exciting chess game ever developed.” That’s actually precisely what the box for this 1984 Artic Computing release on the ZX Spectrum says, but it takes an awful lot more reading of the most convoluted instructions I’ve ever come across to discover that the excitement promised comes when you try to take an opponent’s piece and the action switches to a kind of time-travelling battlefield!
Let’s try and explain… Imagine that near the start of a game, a pawn takes a pawn; we now have to drive our tank forward to reach a city without being hit by a helicopter dropping bombs. If a bishop takes a bishop, however, you need to escape the enemy headquarters while avoiding ghosts. Knight takes knight involves hitting enemy horsemen, and rook takes rook has you climbing some castle ramparts to avoid barrels of oil, but queen takes queen is where it gets really exciting, with you navigating the star trench and hitting the enemy flagship enough times to destroy it! I know, it really does sound like the best chess game ever when you read that, but, like most Artic games, I really didn’t click with it – the mix of tanks, horses and spaceships don’t make the chess board any less mundane to look at, it’s hardly a joy to play and the arcade games will quickly have you reaching for the option to just play chess! And while some might still argue it’s the most exciting chess game ever developed, it really wasn’t exciting enough to keep writing about and got binned off after about as many words as I’ve just written about it here! That said, it is my intention to cover Battle Chess on the Amiga in the near future, so we’ll see if it was really just that game I struggled with or chess in general!
Apart from that, there is one specific genre I’ve steered clear of for similar reasons, and that’s the text adventure, but depending on how this goes we might return again. There’s actually a few I want to cover too! Primarily, Pirate Cove on the Commodore VIC-20, released in 1981 and part of the wonderful Scott Adams Adventure series, which had you travelling from your London flat to Pirate’s Island to recover Long John Silver’s lost treasure. Brilliant writing, brilliant puzzles, and the very first game I ever completed! Another first is Dracula by CRL in 1986, which was the very first video game to be rated by the BBFC, although the developer would later express disappointment that it only got a 15-certificate rather than an 18; they did eventually get there the following year with Jack the Ripper, which is another to get to someday! There’s also a game that to my shame I’ve still not played, and that’s The Hobbit for ZX Spectrum by Melbourne House in 1982, which is a stone-cold classic that this Lord of the Rings nerd has simply never got to. Finally in my to-do list, we have another Melbourne House adventure from 1984 this time, Castle of Terror on Commodore 64, which I must have started and nearly finished about twenty times over the years, but always end up stuck in a room you can’t escape right near the end; like The Hobbit, some lovely graphics to help with the spooky atmosphere, and as soon as I ever beat it we’ll have a look at that too! I don’t know though, I’m still not sure if the prospect of writing about typing N for NORTH or L for LOOK to throw up the next set of words on a screen (if you’re lucky) is getting me any more fired up than Death Chess 5000 did!
Which might all make you wonder what we’re now doing here talking about Dick Turpin on ZX Spectrum, a 1985 text adventure by B.J. Curtis that I’d never even heard of until a couple of days ago as I write! Well, outside of video games there’s a handful of things I’m really into – The Doors; alternative music of various forms; gothic literature and poetry; horror cinema; the aforementioned Jack the Ripper; Ancient Egypt; cryptozoology… And Dick Turpin! This goes all the way back to the TV show starring Richard O’Sullivan as Dick Turpin, which ran for four series between 1979 and 1982 and was a kind of Georgian A-Team, with the dandy highwayman and his young sidekick Swiftnick doing a bit of madcap freedom fighting while evading capture, albeit for crimes they did actually commit in this case! Hell of a supporting cast too, with the likes of Donald Pleasance, Diana Dors and Patrick Macnee all adding to its Saturday night TV appeal.
Further fuelled by Adam & the Ant’s Stand and Deliver in 1981 – possibly the second single I ever bought where their Kings of the Wild Frontier was definitely the first – over time the absolutely unfounded romanticism of the highwayman in general and Dick Turpin in particular would absolutely fascinate me. A quick stock-check around the house yesterday revealed way more than I realised on top of old records too – a full shelf’s worth of books on the subject, including one of my prize books, a 1925 edition of Dick Turpin’s Ride to York (Rookwood); there’s also several antique Royal Doulton Toby jugs and other antique character jugs, bookends and honeypots that I’ve fortunately now forgotten the amount I paid to track down over the years; there’s also horse brasses and various brass fireplace tools, decorative hanging plates, framed first-day covers and postcards, annuals and old comics… and a nice DVD box set which brings us full circle. The only thing I’d really like that I’m still missing are any copies of Black Bess, a penny dreadful publication from about 1866 that serialised (and heavily fictionalised) the life and death of Dick Turpin over the course of several years. Despite their cheap and sensationalist popularity with the Victorian public, they’re not easy to come by anymore, although the new series from the 1920s is another option…
For all the good it’s done to my wallet over the years, if there’s one thing all those books taught me about Dick Turpin it’s that almost everything we know about him has been heavily fictionalised in one way or another, so a quick history and then we’ll get onto the game, I promise! Most of the myth behind Dick Turpin is actually down to our novel, Rookwood, originally written by William Harrison Ainsworth in 1834, almost one hundred years after Turpin’s execution in York in 1739 for nothing more romantic or glamorous than stealing horses. And that’s why until then he was pretty much forgotten until then. He was born in Hempstead, Essex in 1705 to a butcher and innkeeper. He may well have followed in his father’s footsteps as an apprentice butcher, but by the 1730s he was certainly involved in cattle theft and deer poaching with the Gregory Gang, which, as it gradually broke down, descended into violent robberies in and around London, until most of the gang ended up caught and dancing the Tyburn jig! Not Turpin though, who next surfaced in his new career of highway robbery in Epping Forest, just north of London, during the summer of 1735.
All the time the brutality kept ramping up, but this isn’t the place to describe the depths of his cruelty, which eventually led to murder, as well as the death of his accomplice, Tom King, in a botched robbery, after which he fled north to turn his hand to horse theft, which was a capital offence. He’d steal them in Lincolnshire then head up to Yorkshire to sell them under the assumed name of Tom Palmer, but he eventually got his comeuppance when he was arrested for shooting a chicken in the street and then threatened to shoot it’s owner too. While subsequently interred in York, he was recognised as the elusive Dick Turpin, but despite some to and fro about where he should then be tried, he was sentenced to death in York and hanged on 7 April 1739. And that was that until along came Ainsworth with his tale of Turpin’s heroic overnight ride from London to York on his wonder-horse Black Bess, and the myth quickly spiralled way beyond the sordid truth.
And here’s my sordid truth… Despite my frequent claims to have pored over every word written in Computer & Video Games magazine from early 1985 until well into the early nineties, I never really read the adventure section in whatever form it took at the time – always too many words, too dry and too nerdy, even for me! In my defence though, I don’t think Dick Turpin was ever covered there or anywhere else really, so I’ll go with that as the reason why I’ve only just discovered it! What I had heard of, though, was The Quill Adventure System that it was authored with. This was a text-only adventure creation tool that used verb-noun parsing in software to interpret text commands, although it was later joined by The Illustrator to add graphics to adventure games made with it. It got its first release on the ZX Spectrum at the end of 1983, then got ported to Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, Atari 8-bit, Apple II and Oric, and as well as being a huge hit with bedroom enthusiasts, it was also behind over 450 commercial titles!
At this point in proceedings I’ll often dive into the instruction manual, but this is a strange case of there not being a hint of box art, inlays or anything else online, so we’re going to have to grab the scenario from inside the game itself, which appears once we’re past a valiant attempt at a loading screen featuring Dick Turpin holding up a stagecoach. Not sure his bright red coat is going to help him in his current predicament though… “The famous highwayman Dick Turpin has been forced to seek sanctuary in his cave in Epping Forest, in order to elude a massive hunt by the Sheriff’s men seeking to arrest him.” While Epping Forest’s sand and gravel geography isn’t exactly suited to cave systems, Turpin’s Cave is the actual modern name of an area very familiar to Turpin where he may well have been in hiding when he murdered forest-keeper’s servant Thomas Morris after he came across him there. That’s about as far as historically accurate goes though… “He has narrowly avoided arrest and he is penniless and weapon-less. Dick must ride to York to avail himself of his father’s butchers shop, where he can hide in safety until the hunt for him dies down. You play the part of Dick and must guide him safely to York and his father’s shop.” And that’s why I gave you the quick history lesson earlier so we know where we stand!
After pressing any key, and a guttural burst of low-pitched white noise, the screen flashes a few times and we’re off! Dick’s in his small cave decked with moss and straw. There’s a wooden bench and a stool, and a wide opening leading to the forest where there’s a large cavern to the south. And here is the absolute highlight of the game for me, before it even begins! As I’m pondering my first move, which undoubtably is type S or South or Go South or something, a touch of the keyboard and there’s that white noise again from out of nowhere, and it scared the hell out of me this time! Not without reason too – a voice from outside the cave shouts “Turpin. This is Thomas Morris the gamekeeper. I’ve got the entrance covered and I’ve sent my boy to fetch the sheriff’s men. If you venture out I’ll shoot you!” What now Dick? Well first, again, congratulations on pulling a real name out of the hat for a modicum of authenticity! After a bit of examining benches and straw we find a sword, a lamp and some gunpowder while the bloke outside keeps goading us about our game being up, but now I’ve got no idea what else to do but head outside, so I gingerly press S and it takes me south to the cavern, and no sign of the gamekeeper yet!
And best of all, we’ve now got graphics! I had no idea until I entered the cavern that we were getting graphics. What a lovely surprise… Just like the horse that’s in the cavern! A bit of examining and a bit of light puzzling leads us to a saddle for the horse, but first we need to get rid of Morris the gamekeeper, and now it’s starting to want me to be more specific than just “kill Morris” so I try “kill Morris with sword” and he’s a goner! And he’s got a pistol and a pouch with shot inside so I “get shot” and I really appreciated the response of “I hope not. If you mean load the pistol please say so; I’ve already got the shot!” Given I’ve no idea what words it knows and what it doesn’t we’re doing pretty well so far, but before long I’m trying to get on the horse and it doesn’t like that either, so I try ride horse and then it tells me to mount it first, and again, that’s really appreciated; I remember labouring over word choices forever on a lot of old text adventures but this is clever!
After testing my useless sense of direction around Epping Forest and admiring the couple of repeating views of some primitive trees and tracks that take forever to load then colour themselves in every single time, a whole new scare, with the screen’s borders now going nuts as you’re ambushed by a dozen armed troops. Their shooting has scared off the horse, and now it’s tense and all I can think of is to type “hide” and it works! Less than twenty minutes in and I’m really enjoying this text adventure thing again – you’re definitely going to be reading about more of these here soon! We eventually wait out the troops, do some highwayman stuff (albeit disappointingly minus our horse currently), then find a village, and another unexpected sound as you ring a doorbell to get an old telephone sound in response, but more interestingly there’s dots being connected in the emerging story now, and you’re starting to feel like a bit of a sleuth, as well as a bit of a boss when you come across a wanted poster shortly after offering £100 reward for Dick Turpin, infamous highwayman, dead or alive! Unfortunately, the dead option is looking more than likely shortly after again, but this time because of the text input I’ve been praising so far… In a room in an inn with a window that you examine and open, by typing “look” instead of “look out” I saw nothing of interest rather than the ring of armed troops now waiting for me outside the inn! That said, it wasn’t long before it was on my good side again with some very clever use of the “wait” command!
What follows for the rest of the first part of your adventure is an unexpectedly thrilling game of cat and mouse back through Epping Forest, where this time I got hopelessly lost to the point of almost giving up until repeatedly pressing N for want of anything better to do suddenly presented somewhere I hadn’t been, and off we went again! By this point the text entry is pretty intuitive, you know its limits and your limits, and by methodically examining everything you come across you’ll quickly (apart from getting lost!) see the story progressing and opening up before your eyes, interspersed with occasional graphical interludes that might still be primitive, but before long you’re watching them crawl into view with an expectant fondness! And then all of a sudden you’ve made it onto the road to York, there’s a congratulations screen that shows percentage complete, which somehow was 100% (possibly default for getting here!) in 298 turns, end of game! Except it isn’t because we’re also given a code, 67GH, which, now we’ve written it down carefully as instructed, we can “enter it exact when requested upon loading side two.” And that’s exact what I’m going to do!
Once it’s loaded and we’ve entered the code without error as also instructed, “Dick is now on the road to York. Lord Mewksley, however, has sworn that you will be hung and is even now on your tail. Will Dick reach the sanctuary of his father’s shop or will be thwarted. It is up to you..” Okay, not for the first time I’ve ignored some loose writing, but also not for the first time I can’t ignore missing apostrophes, so take this quoted text you’ve been reading as a slight remaster! Anyway, the second part takes in more adventures, mysteries and puzzles through farms, fields and dark passages as you head north and occasionally E, S, W, but where the first part was a bit more of the hardened criminal on the run, this one feels a bit more comical, like the old TV series, with Dick disguising himself as a scarecrow, messing around with suspicious pigs (where that guttural white noise never sounded more terrifying!) and freeing farmers being held by an armed trooper (who, admittedly, you do need to murder, and it won’t be the last time)! While some of the puzzles in this part are a bit more involved, and the rare sound and visual “effects” are used to great effect, it doesn’t quite have the tension of the first part, which I still can’t stop thinking about. So impressive for a bunch of words. Who’d have thought it! That said, there’s a moment right before the end when you realise you’re almost there, and you know exactly what three things now stand between you and freedom, and it’s another fantastic feeling! Which wasn’t so true of only solving 99% this time around, although it was in marginally less turns than for the first part.
I know it means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but in my mind I was taking a bit of a gamble writing about a text adventure this time around, and an even bigger one writing about one I’d previously never heard of for the ZX Spectrum in 1985! And while I don’t especially like gambling, it certainly paid off! Dick Turpin turned out to be pretty much the thrill ride that the novel that turned him into legend described all along! “Your true highwayman has ever a passion for effect. This does not desert him at the gallows; it rises superior to death itself, and has been know to influence the manner of his dangling from the gibbet!” Okay, I could probably have found a better quote from it, but you get the point! I know I’ve said it already several times, but this was such a pleasant surprise. Yes, it’s primitive, and it’s a bit home-made and bare-bones, but solid and intuitive mechanics combined with a solid and intuitive story progression over the course of three or four hours to complete both parts make it rise way above the sum of its parts. Which I guess is loosely also the case for its source material! Over the moon I found this, and, it turns out, there might be something of a born-again text adventure fan here, so see you for the next one!