Rediscovering Merlin on ZX Spectrum

Rediscovering Merlin on ZX Spectrum

When we were looking at The Trap Door (here), we had quite the discussion on Twitter (I may have even gone a bit viral for a moment!) about the best-looking Spectrum game – came up with quite the list too! The Trap Door obviously came out pretty well, as did stuff like R-Type, Exolon, Dan Dare, Light Force and Bomb Jack; no disagreement here so far! I discovered some absolulute corkers I’d never even heard of too, like Savage, Draconus and Astro Marine Corps, all of which possibly coincided with the arrival of my Atari ST! And we also covered a few more modern Spectrum games, like 1997’s The Dark, 2014’s Metal Man Reloaded, 2019’s Valley of Rains and the even more recent, very wonderful Wonderful Dizzy (more here!). Aside from The Trap Door, there were quite a few shouts for other Don Priestley games – the sequel, Through The Trap Door, Flunky, Benny Hill’s Madcap Chase, and probably just about as popular as The Trap Door, Popeye! I had a problem with Popeye though, because everything else (apart from Benny Hill!) looks as good in action as it does on screenshots; Popeye, on the other hand, moves like a dog, and delivers the exact amount of colour clash you’d expect a game with that much colour moving about on a Spectrum… Loads!

It’s not the first time we’ve been caught out by a screenshot though! All those VIC-20 games like Jump Jet with those beautiful Commodore 64 screenshots on the back of the box; the Spectrum wasn’t averse to those kind of shenanigans either, though we did occasionally get our own back with masterpieces like Enduro Racer! And it wasn’t the last time either, although the game missing from the list above may well have been the last time for me at least, with the aforementioned Atari ST looming large on the horizon, and that was, of course, Merlin!

There was no more effective way of selling your game than festooning it with some of the biggest and best-looking graphics you’ve ever seen and then sticking a £1.99 price tag on it, and that’s exactly what Firebird Software did with Mike Westlake’s Merlin early on in 1988. He’d still be plugging away at the Spectrum’s life support machine five year later, with a similarly big and bold pirate take on Merlin, Pieces of Eight, then another called S.A.S. Combat Assault, which appeared when the only people putting out games were Sinclair User magazine! But as good as all of them look, I’m all about his first Spectrum game, Tarantula, a 1987 cavern crawler where you’re flying about on a jetpack collecting stuff and avoiding insects, especially the giant tarantula, which is genuinely one of my favourite sights in all of gaming!

Anyway, back to getting sucked in by Merlin! I was, and whilst it’s nowhere near in the league of something like Kung-Fu Master, I distinctly remember coming home one evening from my Saturday job collecting trolleys at Sainsbury’s with this graphical powerhouse in my pocket, loading it up and just being so disappointed. Big generally isn’t beautiful, whatever wishful thinkers might say, and it also makes playing what thinks of itself as a modern-day Manic Miner an absolute stinker! We’ll get to that again, I’m sure, but however much that evening was just about all the chance I ever gave playing it, it’s always been on the tip of my tongue every time there’s talk of fancy 8-bit graphics, and over three decades on I reckoned this was the time to have another look at it, so here we are!

You might get glamorous screenshots for £1.99, but you rarely got a literary work of art to back them up, even when it’s based on one like this is! Yes, this Merlin is that Merlin! “Mystery magic and mayhem from Merlin the magnificent mage” is what the back of the box tells us; nothing else, but we are getting it in no less than seven languages! Let’s delve deep inside the inlay card instead… “Guide Merlin around the mystical Kingdom of Camelot collecting stars to recover his lost magic powers.” That’s it! No heavyweight medieval romances here, just wander about and collect some stars. For £1.99 I’m not even going to point out that the legendary Camelot is a castle and court, not a kingdom, though given that everything happens in a little castle and its spooky garden, I think we’re all square anyway!

I know I’ve come across as a little dismissive so far, but let’s be clear, once you get past the slightly ropey loading screen, this game is absolutely stunning to look at! It really is up there with me, The Trap Door and the rest as one of the best-looking things you’ll ever see on a Spectrum. It’s not just Merlin that’s massive, it’s everything. Except the castle! But everything else – the suits of armour (or are they actual knights standing about?); the intricate tables and chairs and bookcases; the lecterns holding a literal literary heavyweight; the giant fish that lives in the moat and the oversized barrels of booze in the cellar… all enormous! In the middle of the castle, you’ve got King Arthur’s Round Table, and we know it’s this and not any old table because it’s written in big capital letters on the side – twice – like some kind of old brand logo. Makes me laugh every time! The colour palette is classic Spectrum, but there’s an awful lot of it, with beautifully detailed magenta brickwork, some exquisite red woodwork and a subtly shaded bright green pikeman!

We could say all of that about Popeye though, so how is it in motion? Given that Merlin’s probably an old man, his stiff movement is forgivable, although he’s quick on his feet – too quick for something that relies on a bit of precision a lot of the time! That said, a lot of the stiffness of movement is very much down to the lack of animation – apart from bending his knees to either duck or jump, I’m not convinced there’s any whatsoever! He’s either facing left or right and there might be a bit of movement in his feet, but even despite his enormous size, it’s really hard to tell! There’s so many objects in so many colours everywhere, there’s an awful lot of the time that you won’t really be able to see Merlin at all, which, again, isn’t always ideal for this kind of game! And all of those colours do exactly what you think they will; there’s some glorious colour clash here! I think my favourite examples are any time his bright blue wizard’s hat goes past anything (which is a lot of the time given his size), and when he moves behind the red, green and yellow bookcases and almost completely disappears – all you can see is a total merging of the sprites as he moves across them, Predator style. Actually, with a lick of paint this could have been even better than the actual Predator game that I think came out at exactly the same time!

The sound is a bit grating. The unrelenting classic Spectrum footstep noise is just about tolerable, but there’s these higher-pitched, almost nasal versions of it for some of the enemies which are really annoying, or quieter versions for others, which range from big insects to ghosts to living broomsticks, though these are mostly normal game size, which is a little odd when you’re in one of the few less cluttered environments, but they mostly move about in an inoffensive way. Which isn’t the case for some of the other sound effects – the squelchy beep as you catch a star, or the squelchier one when you lose a life and the more high pitched variant when you’re just losing life force. It’s all just a bit of a cacophony of annoying Spectrum sounds! The title screen music isn’t much better – if I had to write a game theme, I reckon it would sound like this – random notes until you get a hint of a melody, then speed things up and repeat it!

I’m not sure how many screens make up the seemingly small castle of the kingdom of the Camelot, but I reckon around thirty. There’s absolutely no variety in the gameplay no matter which direction you go and how many you make it through though – you’ll have a bunch of stars to collect on each one, which will involve some light jumping and ducking, and some pixel perfect avoiding of enemies that are usually synchronised to make anything less than pixel perfect mean either loss of life force or instant death. I never did work out which enemies would cause which outcome, but you’ll soon find out why you start with ten lives and a life force meter for each one! As we’ve already hinted at, regardless of you being an overly fast but ultimately stiff giant, that pixel perfect thing really gets most problematic when you’re going all Predator in the colour clash jungle of death and you can’t actually tell where he is in relation to the baddies! And that’s the major fun-sucker here.

In the end, all those wonderful graphics are Merlin’s downfall. Too big, too much, and whilst a bit of all fur coat and no knickers can go a long way in delaying such simple gameplay quickly running out of steam, in this case it just serves to accelerate it. But for all it lacks in any kind of long-term fun, I probably got my £1.99’s worth out of bringing it up over the years every time I get the chance to talk about the best-looking game on the Spectrum!

Rediscovering Soft & Cuddly on ZX Spectrum

Rediscovering Soft & Cuddly on ZX Spectrum

I think the 10th Personal Computer World Show, held at London’s Olympia from 23-27 September 1987, was the first of what became a brief annual trip for me, up to its end in 1989, though we definitely made at least one trip to ECES – the European Computer Entertainment Show at Earl’s Court – the following year because that’s where my original Game Boy with Tetris and Super Mario Land came from just after it launched! Apart from that, the first was definitely the most memorable, and not just for the vast amount of free stuff we came back with compared to the next two years, which really are not memorable apart from the diminishing amount of free stuff on offer!

Anyway, back in August 1987, I’d won a Microprose competition in Your Sinclair for an all-expenses paid trip to the show for a go in a real-life AH-64 Apache simulator as part of the launch of the wonderful Gunship helicopter game, which we’ll definitely come back to here very soon! As well as that, and copies of Gunship and Pirates and loads of other Microprose booty, I remember having a tenner to spend on games as well, most of which went on the just-released – and my future top 5 favourite game of all time – Renegade on the ZX Spectrum. With a couple of quid left over, we passed a tiny table-top stand for a company called The Power House, where they were selling a game I’d never heard of called Soft & Cuddly, but a quick look at the inlay and you had the most garish, gruesome graphics you’d ever seen, and it came in a sick bag, and it was £1.99! And obviously, to 15-year old me just discovering a lifelong love of horror, it was a no-brainer!

Once we got home though, the problem it had was that 15-year old me was also just discovering a future top 5 favourite game of all time! And let’s just say that once you’d seen a few of its surreal, grotesque screens, the part-platforming and part-shooter gameplay wasn’t quite on par with Renegade’s, so from then and forever after it would then only ever get the occasional look in! But after all this time, did it deserve more of a look in? Let’s find out…

Before Soft & Cuddly, there was Go To Hell. Developed in 1985 by John George Jones, after a title screen that ripped off the Alice Cooper Goes To Hell album cover, it had you searching a garish colour clash hell for your friend after you’d told him to go there. And he did. I only remember seeing this in magazines when I was still sporting a VIC-20, but I think once you got past its horrific graphical gimmick, there wasn’t a lot of fun to be had in the sub-Atic Atac gameplay. A couple of years later, and John George Jones is back with Soft & Cuddly, turning his hellscape up to eleven, introducing a bit more urgency to proceedings and having your little man fly around the ridiculous labyrinth of screens, moving across the Ultimate Play the Game back catalogue to Jetpac maybe… That said, I’ve always got a bit of a Manic Miner feel out of this despite everything. But we’re jumping ahead of ourselves!

The cassette, with its skinless fanged demon perched on a pile of bloody, decapitated heads, is a bit cryptic about what’s going on. “All dead, all dead, all dead and gone. But this is the Cyborg Age. Kids laugh and joke on the streets and say “we can re-build him!” Well you can, but it has to be the right mix of sinew and metal and first you have to enter the nightmare to retrieve the pieces of what spawned you… Eurgh! …Horror show, horror show.” Somehow poetic, but as said, a bit cryptic. Venture inside the inlay and we’re told that your mother, The Android Queen, has had an accident and been badly damaged. But apparently not before she locked your father in the fridge with a bunch of evil spirits. You need to find eight spirit keys, taken them to your father in the fridge, and exchange them for the lowdown on where the parts of your mother are hidden; which sounds a bit more than being badly damaged in an accident, but it was £1.99 so we’ll go with it! Once you’ve then found all the bits of your mother, you need to get them back to the fridge too, then go and find the needle and thread so she can be sewn back together.

First off, you’re going to be looking for the fridge, which is randomly placed in this 256-screen nightmare at the start of every game. Each screen is a room full of platforms and passages, spikes, falling objects and mundane things that might do you no harm on one screen then kill you in an instant on the next! There’s also various ghosts, aliens, pumpkin monsters, TV’s and unidentifiable machines of ill-repute flying about the place either shooting at you or just waiting for a touch to drain your life away. You can take these enemies out with your laser gun, but use it too much too soon and it overheats and jams. You can also become invisible three times per life, making you invincible as well, but then the only way you’ll know where you are is by shooting your gun to reveal yourself. Your gun can even be used to take out the scenery – spend ages shooting at a brick or a tree, for example, and eventually you’ll whittle away what’s probably going to be a very pointless shortcut!

The scenery though!!! Let’s cut to the chase… The gameplay we’ve just described is boring, and there’s no way you’re going to be putting up with it long enough to do all that collecting and sewing in a fridge crap. What you’re actually going to be doing is travelling from room to room marvelling at the sick and twisted scenery! Right from the off (assuming you avoid the falling anvil in the opening seconds) you’re going to be blown away by the half a screen high oozing fish head in glorious red and blue with big green eyes, moving surprisingly smoothly about the place without a hint of colour clash! You’ll soon be seeing an oversized bleeding head being repeatedly squashed by hydraulic spikes on a platform that simply says “DIE!”

Then there’s a framed picture of a skull in an army cap surrounded by green skulls in army caps, then a big one appears and chases you around as another set of spikes ominously hang from the ceiling next to a sheep with a fish’s head moving around on a trolley. There’s four co-joined babies being stretched on a rack over a dead body being drained of blood by some spikey hammer things. There’s gibbets and other medieval torture devices amongst the Spectrum-magenta brickwork; there’s piles of bodies and another baby, but this time its head is in a cobra’s mouth! And all of these things are huge and brightly coloured and moving around with gay abandon between all the platforms and moving catwalks and traps you need to negotiate.

And then you’ll enter a very plain black room with a load of bricks or some grass or something along the bottom, but hang on because here comes the big one! A huge scarred, slashed-up, very bloody wild-haired witch face thing has just appeared out of nowhere to take up most of the screen and absolutely destroy you!

And all of that is why you need to go back and play Soft & Cuddly! It’s not about the mundane and slightly confusing gameplay (which as I’m playing and writing still bizarrely think feels like Manic Miner even though it’s absolutely nothing like it!), or the very functional sound effects or the early-eighties enemy or platform designs (sounds like Manic Miner!). It’s not even about the free bonus music track by H.E.X. on Side B, which is actually a very good piece of pre-romo post-punk… It’s about what surreal, grotesque (but almost completely colour clash-free) monstrosity you’ll come across next. And how big it will be!

Before I started here, I did have a concerted effort for a proper run at the game, and I found the fridge and some other bits a few times, but there’s so much of it and once the nightmares start repeating you definitely reach a point where you feel you’ve seen everything even if you havent. But until you reach that point, it’s quite the sight to see all the same!

Rediscovering Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare on Game Boy Colour

Rediscovering Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare on Game Boy Colour

For a good few years after the disappearance of the video shop, you had the DVD rental by post service. I used LoveFilm, eventually bought out by Amazon, but I’m sure there were others. And for the horror film collector with a PC that could copy DVD’s, these offered a wonderful service! For a fixed price of a tenner or so a month, you were getting up to three films from your wishlist of every genre title that ever got released in the post. If you were lucky, you could get them all copied and back in the post on the same day, then have a new batch two days later! And they soon mounted up to more than you could ever watch, and even 15 or 20 or whatever years later, I’ve still about a dozen 50-DVD spools worth of rented films I still haven’t got around to (or brought myself to) watching!

If I had to name one film that typified those boxes of unwatched films, it would be Alone in the Dark, the 2005 Uwe Boll classic starring Christian Slater, Stephen Dorff and Tara Reid. Paranormal detective follows clues to the death of his friend, ends up on Shadow Island with its demons and gateway to hell. Sounds great, and I recently added it to my Amazon Prime watchlist now its evolved from DVD to streaming obscurity, but still have never had any real inclination to watch it… Despite it often being nominated as one of the worst movies ever made!

The plot doesn’t sound that disimilar to Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare on the Game Boy Colour (and other platforms), and that’s because it was loosely based on it. Also known as Alone in the Dark 4, it’s a kind of reboot of the original game from 1992. Which is why the plot doesn’t sound that disimilar to that either! In 2008, Alone in the Dark was recognised by Guinness World Records Gamer’s Edition as the first ever 3D survival horror game. It was originally released on PC (MS-DOS) then ported to the 3DO a couple of years later. It has you going backwards and forwards around a haunted mansion in 1920’s Lousiana, solving puzzles, killing or running away from spooky stuff and, of course, managing your inventory like all good survival horror games that followed it! I remember it looked cool at the time, with hand-drawn backdrops behind some vintage 3D polygons, but like the film, I was never that inspired to get involved – and actually, by the time I could, Resident Evil had completely superceded it.

The 2001 Game Boy Colour game has your partner being found dead off the coast of Shadown Island, which is apparently off the coast of Massachusetts. It turns out he’s been after some magical tablets, which you get roped into searching for while you’re trying to solve the murder. And that means going to the island and wandering around the spooky woods, mansion grounds and mansion itself, looking for a clue that will lead you to the next through the story.

This all manifests in a mostly point-and-click feeling game, where you’re on the lookout for a glinting object that will turn out to be a key or a crowbar or a secret switch in the bookshelf that will open up the next place you need to get to. It’s relatively well signposted if you’re paying attention, especially once you get the lie of the land and stop getting lost in the often labyrinthian mansion! Now and again you’ll get something like the random encounters that drive you nuts in the old Final Fantasy games, where the game switches to an isometric scrolling shooter and you’re taking out werewolves and spiders and the like with your pistol or whatever weapon you find and prefer on the way. Apart from the final boss battle, which also takes this form but is a little more enjoyable than the rest of these encounters, it’s not going to take long for you to dread these happening. They’re really not fun and they are where you’re going to die, often through sloppy controls and the rubbish semi-auto aim rather than anything you did yourself. That said, it does a good job of forcing you to manage your ammo, to the point where most of the tensioni in the game comes from the prospect of running out, and finding more is always a huge relief.

And now you’re really wondering why I dismissed the original game, the star-studded movie adaptation by the master of the video game to movie adaptation, and indeed the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 versions of this very game (Windows and Dreamcast also exist), when it’s already apparent that I’ve not only played this, but also finished it on the Game Boy Colour…

Some context is necessary here! Obviously, the original Game Boy was a revolution and a revelation in handheld gaming, but whilst it was great to have some colour graphics, the Game Boy Colour never really made much of an impact because it didn’t really add anything more than that – more of the same games, different screen; like moving from the crappy green monitor Amstrad CPC option to the colour one fifteen or so year previously!

For me, that was until Alone in the Dark came along. Nothing had looked like it on such a tiny screen before, and if you were making comparisons, then look no further than the aforementioned PlayStation version because when screenshots first started appearing for this, it really was that good! And as you play through it, every location is absolutely sumptuous, oozing atmosphere in the palm of your hand like you’ve never seen before – to the point that I needed a second playthrough so that on almost every other screen I could crawl under my desk where there’s no reflections and get some photos of the screen!

Alone in the Dark didn’t only push the limits of the Game Boy Colour, but went beyond them! It benefitted from a rarely used but very cool high colour programming exploit that could get 2000 colours on the screen at once, rather than the typical maximum of 56, though I think it for most games was generally a lot less than that. And that made the environments look spectacular on the system. Or most of them… There was no way you were going to be anything but a 2D sprite, and there was definitely no way that sprite was doing anything more than moving around those beauties, so the crappy combat had to switch to a more traditional Game Boy Colour look, then switch back when you’d killed everything (or been killed because you’d run out of ammo).

To the modern eye, playing this is very early Resident Evil-lite in almost every respect (if it was on a handheld and needed a lacklustre combat mode for some reason), and if that sounds alright, then you’ll struggle to find a better looking and more enjoyable, atmospheric and surprisingly immersive few hours on your Game Boy Colour!

Rediscovering Wacky Races on Game Boy Colour

Rediscovering Wacky Races on Game Boy Colour

A quick note on something I’ve pretty much overlooked since it came out in 2000, but I’ve recently discovered a new-found admiration for, despite it really not being the best racing game you’re ever going to play!

I’ve always been a fan of late 1960’s Hannah-Barbera, and Wacky Races is one of my favourites. This game takes that concept and slaps it into a crazy, chaotic and, above all, colourful kart racer for the Game Boy Colour. It’s massively simplistic, the rubber-banding is totally unfair, and so is the power-up distribution for other Wacky Racers in front of you who always pick up mines, which they’ll drop as soon as you’re right behind them and can’t do much about it! But despite all of that, and despite the existence of V-Rally on the platform, there’s so much to love here that makes it my go-to racer on the Game Boy Colour!

Different racers bring different racing styles, so Penelope Pitstop will be quick but get knocked around easily, whereas nuanced overtaking isn’t something you’ll worry about when you’re Sergeant Blast! All your favourite characters are here – The Anthill Mob, The Slag Brothers, Rufus Ruffcut, et-al – and you’ll be racing them in different cups across different American states. Win the Crazy Cup and you’re going to be unlocking more of the gang, including Dastardly and Muttley of course! As well as the three regular cups, you’ve got time trials, endurance and championship modes to keep the fun long-term.

It’s a lot about speed and a lot about skill and a lot about luck, but just like the cartoon (unless you’re Dick Dastardly, of course), what’s going to win you races is how you use the power-ups; there’s ten of them, from regular turbo speed-ups to a devastating lighting attack. And you’re going to learn to love and hate them all equally!

I’ve no doubt that the best thing about Wacky Races is how it looks. It really is the cartoon on a cartridge, and in my humble opinion it’s one of the best looking games to ever see the light of day on the Game Boy Colour. Each state is beautifully characterised with scorching deserts, rolling hills, lush grassy farmland and snowy mountains flying by, and everywhere you look you’re getting outrageous popping colour that works brilliantly! And your car, and those of your competitors, is going to look just like you remember it from the cartoon, as do the occasional cut-scenes.

Really shows that a game doesn’t have to be technically great to be technically great fun!