My Life With… Paperboy – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Paperboy – ZX Spectrum

It’s easy to forget there was TV outside of Miami Vice in 1986, such was its influence on the style of a 14-year old at the time, but it did exist! The Chart Show started a 12-year run, and would become almost equally influential later for its indie or rock chart every other week… Winona by The Drop Nineteens, in my top three favourite songs ever (behind The Cure’s Pictures of You and Ride’s Vapour Trail, if you’re interested) was found there. I seem to remember Today by The Smashing Pumpkins too, and bands like Faith No More and Suede. Shame you had to sit through so much crap to get to those five minute slots, though we were, of course, entertained by Samantha Fox’s Touch Me on there in its first year, so you got something else worthwhile out of it sometimes! I was also a big fan of courier-cum-detective Boon, which would be around for another six years from then, though I always feel that over time it got a bit eclipsed by the adventures of sexy antiques rogue Lovejoy, who first appeared in 1986 too. We also got Neighbours for the first time, most hours of the day from what I remember!

Over on kids TV, which I was becoming a bit more choosy about by this point, the biggest thing happening was probably Zammo’s ongoing slide into heroin oblivion on Grange Hill; if only he hadn’t made such a big deal of winning the moustache-weighing competition, he might have got away with it, and we’d have never had to suffer Just Say No… We also suffered the end of Bananaman, Robin of Sherwood and the wonderful Terrahawks, but we did see the launch of Gaz Top’s Get Fresh on Saturday mornings (though he was still no Sarah Greene), The Trap Door (which also spawned the best looking Spectrum game ever), and a quiz show that no one remembers called First Class…

No one remembers First Class because the majority of the programme was completely forgettable – a BBC1 kids quiz show with general knowledge and popular culture rounds for teams representing their schools. But make it through those, and things got interesting because the last round was an arcade game round, where members of the team were nominated to compete against each other on Hyper Sports or Paperboy, and I think 720 too. And for me at least, there was no better advert than seeing any of them for the first time than on the living room TV! If only they had home computer versions… If only I didn’t have a VIC-20… As an aside, when I said the majority of First Class was “completely forgettable” I was doing a disservice to its presenter, Miss Great Britain 1984, Debbie Greenwood, who could definitely give Sarah Greene a run for her money!

Of course, in the grand scheme of things it wouldn’t take long for the home versions of all three to arrive – and fine ports they all were – and my Spectrum +2 wasn’t far behind either. But for another 20 years, my only experience of arcade Paperboy was that tantalising segment on First Class! I eventually got my hands on the arcade version on the PlayStation Portable no less, as part of the Midway Arcade Treasures: Extended Play compilation, which also included 720 and around 20 other arcade wonders. The whole thing was a modern wonder, but it was on a tiny screen, and it would be another 10 years (2016, in case you’re keeping track) before it turned up in Lego Dimensions Midway Arcade level pack and I got to play it on a much bigger screen than originally intended via my PlayStation 4!

But now we’re way ahead of ourselves, and we need to get back to the origin story. Paperboy hit the arcades in 1985, complete with its bicycle handlebar controls that were actually a modified version of the yoke found in the greatest arcade machine of them all, Star Wars! This meant you were pushing forwards to speed up, back to brake, then steering your bike left and right as normal… If you’re bike had an X-Wing yoke instead of handlebars, which is now the greatest bike of them all! Anyway, there was also a button on either side that allowed you to chuck your newspapers…

The game had you, the paperboy, delivering newspapers to your subscribers down Easy Street, Middle Road or Hard Way (also the three difficulty levels), every day from Monday to Sunday. You start with a minimap of the street showing where your friendly neighbourhood subscribers are, and also where the villainous non-subscribers are, though you will pretty much ignore this as one lot live in bright houses and the others dark houses. You need to deliver the newspapers by throwing them at the mailbox outside the house, ideally, which gets you the most points, and if you get them all you’ll double your score. This will also win back any non-subscribers you’ve lost previously because you missed their house. You also get points by vandalising non-subscriber houses, and smashing one of your newspapers through a window is still one of my favourite things in all of gaming! (Closely followed by breaking what I think are gravestones you can bust in half)! But don’t go too nuts because you’ve got a limited supply of newspapers so keeping your subscribers happy needs to be your priority, though you will come across refills on the way.

All the way down the street you’re avoiding hazards like bins and rampant tyres and lawnmowers, cars, go-karts, pets, skateboarders, breakdancers and all kinds of crazies that will spell instant death, losing you a life but thankfully allowing you to carry on your journey until you run out of them. Get to the end of the street and you’re rewarded with a go on the training course, with ramps to jump over, moving obstacles and targets to throw your remaining papers at for more points. Including this was a genius move, because whilst they already had a unique game in an isometric racer that involved delivering newspapers, they also hit on the massive BMX craze in the mid-eighties with the training course that pretty much sold the game by itself! Anyway, get to the end (or not) and you’ll get your daily totals and any cancelled subscriptions, and you’re onto more of the same but harder and with different things to kill you on the next day.

The home versions started appearing in 1986, and would eventually be available on pretty much everything you could imagine, but I guess I picked up my Spectrum version around Christmas 1987. And it’s a fantastic conversion! The main gameplay area – about two-thirds of the screen – is presented in a blue and black monochrome with some lovely colour-clash provided by the odd garish obstacle! Apart from the lack of colour and things being a little on the small side, the impressive attention to detail of the original is all present and correct, and that transfers to the gameplay itself, which feels exactly how it should at it scrolls along at a fair old whack. It’s just as tough too, but like the original is never overly punishing once you get used to what’s happening and where you need to be to avoid it – for the first couple of days at least!

I did get the Atari ST version a few years later, in one of those awkward oversized cassette-style cases it used to favour, though I don’t really remember playing it much. From what I do remember, it was pretty much the arcade version, with big colourful graphics and a lot more sound than the incidental beeps the Spectrum version managed! I played a fair bit of the Game Boy version too, which was like a mash up of my previous two versions – big graphics, great sound, all monochrome! Very impressive though, but not as impressive as the final version I’m going to mention, which I’ve only played on emulation but is a real technical marvel – the Commodore 16 / Plus 4 version! Considering this would have been squeezed into about 12K of code, it still manages to at least resemble and, more importantly, feel like the arcade game (if it was slowed down a bit).

I’ve only ever played the SNES version of the 1991 sequel, Paperboy 2. This time you could be a papergirl if you wanted, and you were delivering to both sides of a more elaborate road as even more bizarre obstacles got in your way. It’s fun but it’s all a bit soulless though, and there’s no way I’d ever load this up when there’s so many ways to play the original… Which I probably still wouldn’t load up while my Spectrum +2 is sitting right here in front of me!

My Life With… California Games – Atari Lynx

My Life With… California Games – Atari Lynx

In this post I think we’re going all the way back to the June 1991. It’s my brother Phil’s 17th birthday and he’s just unwrapped an Atari Lynx. I’m back from my first year of university, having spent what seemed like weeks in a sweltering sports hall doing exams in mechanics and other awful engineering things. In a few months I’d be off to France for my second year – a decision that confounds me to this day – but in the meantime a huge summer break beckoned, reunited with my school friends, exploring Southern Comfort, being either on or off (I’ve lost track which at that point in time) with the flame-haired Irish girl my former best friend and I had both fallen for on the same night the previous year, and collecting trolleys for Sainsbury’s… Which funded, alongside the aforementioned exotic things, seeing Guns ‘n Roses at Wembley, complete with an expletive-tastic Skid Row and the UK premier of Nine Inch Nails. 

That summer had its moments, one way or another (mostly another, the closer I got to leaving for France), and this was very much reflected in my experience with Phil’s Lynx. On one hand, he’s only got the Gameboy killer! I’d not even had it a year, and here’s this all singing and dancing powerhouse with its huge screen running arcade quality graphics. On the other, it came with California Games!

Several years earlier, I’d spent dozens of hours playing Winter Games on my friend Steven’s Commodore 128 and on our Spectrum +2. Not only was this a successor, but it came with all the glamour of The Beach Boys, CHiPs and the hottie in a bikini on roller skates on the cover!

Speaking of which, despite the Lynx being a powerhouse, there was a bit of compromise. Only four of the six events appeared here, sacrificing frisbee and said skater hottie rolling provocatively down a path next to a road. I don’t think we were missing out on too much, and if I remember right she appeared on the scoreboard screen so you could still get your kicks there!

But what you did get was BMX, half-pipe, footbag and the big one, surfing! Actually, they could have compromised on all the events as long as surfing was there. The waves felt like waves, and the controls responded perfectly to them. It looked the part as well – the blue sky, the realistic spray as the wave closed in, and the blond surfer dude just out there having fun in the warm California sun. 

BMX felt very similar, with flipping off the top of waves replaced by flipping and jumping and spinning your way around a great-looking BMX track. Half-pipe, situated right in front of the Hollywood sign, wasn’t quite as responsive, but you eventually got the hang of it and then it could really feel good – big air and big turns could rack up serious points once you puzzled out how to get a bit of speed up. Footbag was a less extreme affair, but you could still get a lot of satisfaction out of putting together a long and varied combo with some carefully timed nudges to the joypad. 

Very recently I played the Atari 2600 version of this, on the portable I got last Christmas (2016). That is a remarkable achievement, with easily the best graphics on the system, and its own version of Louie Louie! It’s very playable, can handle up to eight players, and the footbag feels great. Definitely worth seeking out to see Atari’s original powerhouse in all its glory!

California Games stayed close to my heart for far longer than the Lynx could ever hope to; in fact, Blue Lightning is the only other game I remember playing on it! But even California Games, as much as I love playing it on various systems to this day, can’t hold a flame to my Gameboy. Also known as Lynx killer!

See you next time, but let’s finish with a reminder of America’s greatest cultural export…

My Life With… Dungeon Master – Atari ST

My Life With… Dungeon Master – Atari ST

In 1987, aged fifteen, I was skirting perilously close to being 100% nerd. All the elements were there – the shy boy that was still considerably shorter and younger looking than a lot of his classmates; a love of thrash and death metal, the unexplained, horror, The Hobbit, Fighting Fantasy books and 2000AD. I’d discovered White Dwarf magazine and was beguiled by the painted figures, something called Warhammer and big tabletop war games, and of course Dungeons & Dragons. 

As an aside, that was probably around the same time I came across my first porno mag in a clump of bushes we used as a 45-and-in (a more pro-active version of hide & seek) hiding place in Bedford’s Jubilee Park. It was a copy of Escort, until then a distant and exotic vision on the top shelf of WHSmith next to stuff like Club International, Mayfair, Playboy, Men Only and the classic Razzle. No real relevance here, but the mystery of how porno mags became a regular sight in bushes, hedgerows and ditches continues to fascinate me!

Back to Dungeons & Dragons, and that was equally mysterious to me. Why were there no pictures of it anywhere? Just rule books, paper with a grid on and dice with loads of sides! My best friend, Thomas, talked about it all the time. His older brother, William, who I’d known for years from my previous incarnation as a scout, became instantly more cool when I found out he was a Dungeon Master! He had a hundred-sided dice too. Wild man! And they had such adventures with goblins and poison and battle axes and stuff. It would be another year, during the long post-GCSE summer holidays that the mystery was solved. Such an anti-climax…

Sometime that winter, Thomas introduced me to something close though. To my extreme jealousy, he’d got an Atari ST and that’s when I first laid eyes my future love, and on Dungeon Master. Suddenly my Spectrum looked like a relic (though not as much as when I first laid eyes on Defender of the Crown soon after)!

This was a whole new world – a disk, a huge manual (including what was virtually a novel on how you had to find the Firestaff to rid the dungeon of Chaos or some such nonsense), and how on earth were you supposed to play with the sliding block that moved an arrow around the screen? What do you mean no joystick??? And those lifelike 3D stone walls…

Once you’d picked your four heroes, it was out with your torch and into the labyrinth ye go. Fighting the scariest, most beautifully animated monsters you’d seen in a game to date with the icons that surrounded the main window was actually straightforward. As was using them to create spells with weird symbols, sort out your gear, solve puzzles, avoid traps and carry the bones of fallen allies to reincarnation altars. Providing your torch didn’t go out first! One of the truly “next-gen” features of this game was the ever diminishing light from your torch, and unless you had a spare or a spell that did the job, this was the cause of far more tension than big groups of mummies shambling about!

Some things weren’t so different to my old last-gen relic though; the corridors might have looked great, but they all looked the same, so making your own map was essential. And the dungeon was so big that it made mapping something like Firelord on the Spectrum seem a breeze!

I was in nerd heaven for every second I spent playing this at Thomas’ house. It was the embodiment of what he’d told me about the mysteries of D&D; it was Deathtrap Dungeon brought to life; it made up for all the missing fantasy credentials that made me feel a bit inadequate when I read White Dwarf – oh, the irony!

My very own ST came about a year later, and my own copy (literally) of Dungeon Master, but there’s a tale for another day. 

See you soon, when I’ll make up for the delay in posting this because I was in California with something very Californian!

Can You Name Your Top 50 Games?

Can You Name Your Top 50 Games?

Can you name your top 50 video games? That’s the question that prompted what you’re now reading. The top ten came pretty quickly; I’ve maintained a top 3 of games, films, songs and albums in my mind for years. That’s not too weird for this stage in our relationship, is it? The other seven took thirty seconds to list and two minutes to put in order. The other forty probably occupied me for an hour or so.

Ten seconds after that, as I proudly surveyed my fondest gaming memories, I realised that this wasn’t just list of games, but the history of my life, at least as far as I could remember.

Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve never considered myself a massive gamer. It’s just one of several constants that have tracked my life to greater and lesser degrees – rock music, horror films, Arsenal FC, the paranormal, Jim Morrison, Jack the Ripper… What my list made me realise, though, was that video games had framed my life for longer than any of these, most of which are greater passIons, if not obsessions; which gaming certainly isn’t.

What I also realised was that my history and that of popular gaming run very much in tandem, starting in the mid-1970’s to the present day.

This is where we begin to jump into, in no particular order, some of these games. And it’s now a lot more than 50 in my list, but we’ll get to that some day.

I’m not going to go nuts, I’m not a great games reviewer, and I’ve got no special qualifications to do this beyond “I was there.” I hope you enjoy this blog all the same though. First post, first game tomorrow.

But before we start, do you recognise my No. 1?