My Life With… Daley Thompson’s Decathlon (ZX Spectrum)

My Life With… Daley Thompson’s Decathlon (ZX Spectrum)

I’m fairly certain that Daley Thompson’s Decathlon was the fourth game I ever played on the ZX Spectrum! My best friend Paul had moved from an Atari 2600, and our days of playing Boxing and the one with the two tanks (Combat?) on their family TV in the living room were replaced in the most part, in my memory at least, by the distinctive sound of Spectrum loading screens in his bedroom, interspersed by actually playing the occasional game! It was the Classic setup – rubber-keyed 48K Spectrum connected to the type of small portable cassette recorder every home had at the time but didn’t belong to anyone in particular, connected to a tiny portable TV and a couple of games; all on the floor.

I think Horace Goes Skiing (more here) was my first experience of the ZX Spectrum, with it’s Frogger rip-off first screen getting in the way of what still holds up as one of the best-feeling skiing games ever! Second was Chequered Flag, and I can still remember being totally blown away by that in-car view with the moving wheels and steering wheel! Still one of my favourite racers ever. Then a bit later his collection extended to Alcatraz Harry, an early Mastertronic £1.99 title where you negotiated the maze-like prison, avoiding guards and collecting escape tools, but usually ended up caught and in front of a firing squad. We did actually finish that one once! And then a bit later still we got to what would become one of the system’s defining games, as well as the ruin of many a Spectrum itself…

Not sure if he had any other games up to then, but I don’t remember playing anything else over what must have been his first year owning it, with most of the action happening over the summer of 1984; frequent trips backwards and forwards down the network of alleyways that connected the roads where we lived. We all knew and loved every inch of those dusty, poorly surfaced, weed-strewn alleways that ran the length of both sides of each of three roads, behind the terraced houses and gardens and sometimes garages, and were connected by another at each end, one of which was interrupted by the roads. These were our hide and seek and ball tig grounds; our cycle tracks and skate parks; our football and cricket pitches; our assault courses and everything else we needed them to be whenever we were playing outside with the neighbouring kids! And from the time I was allowed to walk to Paul’s house by myself, to when we used to get the bus to upper school near there, to when as young bucks on the prowl I’d go to his house on Friday and Saturday nights to get a taxi into town to go out drinking, that was my own almost private shortcut!

As a related aside, on what was probably one of the last of hundreds or thousands of journeys down those alleyways to Paul’s house, I had music playing on something – most likely my Aiwa PX347 “Walkman” with Super Bass, Feather Touch Control and Dolby 8 NR! It was an incredibly hot summer day, probably around 1993 or 1994, and on came Heat by The Mission, and the lyrics that I knew inside out by that point somehow chose that particular listen to make an eternal connection in my brain between that song and that mundane trip on that particular scorching Friday evening:
And the heat comes down
And the heat comes down
And hand in hand
We melt in the heat

Almost exactly ten years before that, at the end of that exact journey, something similar had happened with another song, 1999 by Prince. Like The Mission’s Heat, it would have been a song I was already very familiar with by that time; it had come out two years earlier in 1982 and was obviously a massive hit, getting non-stop airtime all over the radio and in my fledgling record collection, as well as becoming a regular feature at school discos when 80’s nights really were 80’s nights! But there was something about that song that just happened to be playing in the background at the exact moment I started hammering two rubber keys as fast as humanly possible for my first ever 100m dash that forever connected 1999 with playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon in Paul’s bedroom! Actually, it was very much the concept of the song at that time that stuck with me during that particular listen, maybe taking note of what the lyrics were saying for the first time… To a 12-year old in what would have been heading into late or even Christmas 1984 by the time the game actually appeared on Spectrum, all that partying like it’s 1999 seemed like science fiction! It was literally more than a lifetime away, too far in the future to fathom. And then when we got there far sooner than this 12-year old might have imagined, that memory and that connection in my brain was still there, but it didn’t seem so long looking back as a 27-year old. And it seems even closer all these years further on! Funny how your brain makes connections just as strong for minor, seemingly random and mundane events as those it makes for remembering where you were on 9/11 or when you heard Kurt Cobain was dead or when the Mary Rose was pulled out of the sea…

Or maybe even where you were when Daley Thompson won his first Olympic decathlon gold medal in 1980 (about my limit!), or again in 1984. Daley Thompson was massive – even bigger than Prince at the time! Remember, we had four TV channels and things like the Olympics, and athletics in general, were a major factor in the summer TV schedule even if you weren’t much of an athlete. And if you owned a Spectrum, you just needed a copy of Ocean Software’s Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. Interestingly, I don’t remember any of my Commodore 64 owning friends ever having a copy (even though I think it came first and was the same great game and a bit more, for example having a second competitor on the screen on track events), and obviously I didn’t know anyone with an Amstrad CPC, which it also appeared on!

As well as cashing in on the man himself, Track & Field was also a big deal in the arcades at the time, sucking up my 10p’s during a church trip to Great Yarmouth that year (also memorable for playing a neighbour’s Mini Munchman on the bus journey there) and the next, and this was as close as you were getting to a home version. In fact, you’d have to wait until 1988 and the Game, Set and Match 2 compilation for a Spectrum (or Amstrad CPC) version; and it wasn’t great, especially as we’d been spoilt by an excellent port of Hyper Sports inbetween. That said, this compilation was generally awesome on the Spectrum – Super Hang On, Basket Master, Match Day 2 and Championship Sprint more than made up for any duds (and the stuff you weren’t interested in, Nick Faldo Plays The Open I’m talking about you)!

The game, predictably, has you taking part in a decathlon. I’d like to say as Daley Thompson, but your character is very white. You might justify this by thinking that’s just to cover up any colour clash, but I’m not sure how the very “white” character hairstyle contributes to that. The loading screen goes a step further, where he’s even more white than the white fellow competitors behind him! At least the hair works a bit better there, and the cassette inlay makes further strides in recognising his actual skin colour.

Anyway, regardless of whether you are playing as Daley or a white imposter, you’ve got two days of athletic pursuits ahead of you, one of each side of the tape! On day one, you’ve got 100 metres, long jump, shot putt, high jump and 400 metres. On day two, you move on to 110 metre hurdles, discus, pole-vault, javelin and 1500 metres. Gameplay ranges from the famous, keyboard killing button mashing of two keys (or joystick waggling if you really want to break some stuff quickly) to make you go faster in races or run ups, to precisely angled jumps then more strategic stamina management in the long distance races. You effectively have three lives, meaning fail to hit the qualifying time or distance or height in an event three times and you’re out. Get through everything and you’re the champ!

Things start pretty smoothly. No brains required in the first event, just hit those left and right buttons as fast as you can and you’ll qualify pretty easily. Play it safe and you should qualify in at least one of your three long jumps next too – just hit jump near enough to the line and hold it down until you get to about 45 degrees – and make note of that number! Shot putt was a variant on that, but you’re throwing a heavy ball at 45 degrees instead of jumping when you get to the line, and it’s really easy as long as you don’t cross the line. High jump is where the challenge starts, and has you hitting and holding jump a second time to adjust your body angle mid-jump, and this is going to take some experimenting until you know the right angle numbers (about 80 and 20 degrees if I remember right) and more importantly, when to hit jump to take off because there’s no distance indicator before you reach the bar; keep going higher until you’ve fouled three times. Should you get there, 400 metres takes the button mashing approach of the 100 meters but goes on four times longer, and your fingers aren’t going to forgive you in a hurry!

Turn the tape over and you’re going to load into the 110 meters – button mashing with the added challenge of timing a jump whilst staying in your running rhythm; screw it up once and you’re going to struggle but avoid crashing into any hurdles and crossing the finish line feels really great. Discus has you spinning rather than running, then timing your 45 degree let-go when you’re facing the right way having reached a decent rotational pace. Another tough one until you’ve got the timing in your head, then it’s hard to not qualify.

Pole vault is another test of timing and knowing when to start dropping the pole, but like the 110 meters, you’re going to feel great when you finally get over a really high bar; like high jump, this keeps going until you foul three times, and is great fun when you’re chasing your record scores. Javelin goes back to the standard running and chucking formula, but I always found watching it (very) slowly ascend and flatten out along the top of the screen then descend quite hypnotic! Qualify this far and you’re at the 1500 meters, the epic final event that struck fear into any Spectrum gamer, but in reality was more sedate (or even boring, some might say) than the long distance test of finger stamina it was perceived to be! This time you have an energy bar, and the faster you go, the quicker it will deplete, so it’s all about finding a rhythm and speeding things up when your energy looks like it can take it. This is definitely the most thoughtful of all the events and whilst the gameplay might not invoke a frantic final push to the podium, it certainly feels great when you get there, though it’s hard to fail once you know what you’re doing.

Sound effects are mostly non-existent up to this point, apart from some white noise of varying lengths representing a starting gun or crowds cheering when you qualify, but there are some short bursts of music elsewhere between events, and, most notably, when you win gold at the end of all this, with a beautiful (in Spectrum terms) rendition of Chariots of Fire as white Daley stands on top of the podium with his arms held high. Then you get the final score and you’re ready to go all over again. After loading side one again, of course.

Apart from Daley Thompson’s questionable ethnicity in the game, there was an awful lot to look at and be impressed by. As said earlier, the white character did avoid any serious colour clash so everything else was very colourful. That screen was really clearly presented (and pretty much directly lifted from the Track & Field user interface) – your score and qualifying requirements at the top, current attempts and records below, then the best crowd representation I’d seen up to that point, moving around excitedly with their Ocean banners; below them you’ve got the track or field area with your main man in action, and at the very bottom a speed, angle and distance guage that appeared as required. Every event was smoothly animated even if the running has aged a bit today, with nice touches like the guy with his tape measure in the long jump or the shadow under the shot putt as it flies through the air.

The game won Best Arcade Style Game at C&VG’s Golden Joystick Awards in 1984, and also Best (Overall) Arcade Game in the Crash Readers Awards, fending off challenges from the mighty Jet Set Willy and only marginally less mighty Sabre Wulf. The following year it joined both of those games and Beach Head on the first They Sold a Million compilation, so we can assume it sold a ton too. And rightly so! Play this or Track & Field or Hyper Sports today, and whilst bashing buttons for speed might not feel as natural and ubiquitous today as it did in the mid-eighties, it’s just as much fun and is just as destructive to your equipment… And don’t forget the old pro tips about rubbing a biro really fast across the keys for an extra boost. I’m sure they all work equally well nowadays!

My Life With… Snoopy Tennis (Nintendo Game & Watch)

My Life With… Snoopy Tennis (Nintendo Game & Watch)

In the very early 1980’s, there was nothing more exciting than checking out the handheld gaming pages in the latest Argos catalogue! You had never seen anything like it, even though the last edition had only come out six months previous, and you’d have bitten anyone’s arm off to get your hands on any of them! Half of them were variants on Space Invaders (and for a time, I think half of those were probably called Space Invader, singular), including what must have been the first electronic game I ever laid my hands on, Grandstand’s Invader From Space – also featuring the first of many joysticks I ever broke!

You also had stuff like Missile Invader and Astro Wars, Scramble with its tiny controls and Galaxy Invader 1000 in its iconic yellow and black case. If you weren’t into space shooters, there was Caveman and Firefox F-7, some rubbish LED sports games, and it wouldn’t take long for Pocket Pac-Man, Munchman and Mini Munchman and loads more Pac-a-likes to appear. And these things kept coming and, of course, getting more advanced, like the wonderful BMX Flyers – my favourite example of the genre – all the way through to the TomyTronic 3D games like Thundering Turbo, Sky Attack and Shark Attack just a couple of years later!

And in parallel to these handheld – or often, in reality, tabletop – battery-guzzling beasts (Mini Munchman aside), there was the increasingly mind-boggling range of truly handheld Game & Watch games from gaming upstart Nintendo. At least until Donkey Kong Jr. arrived on Game & Watch Tabletop on the very day of writing this, the 28th of April, in 1983.

These things seemed to breed every time you looked away, with 60 of them eventually produced between 1980 and 1991 when the Game Boy had all but made them redundant. Even if you didn’t own it (though my next-door neighbour did) the first one that springs to mind is usually Donkey Kong from 1982, with its orange flip case, two LCD screens and the first ever incarnation of a D-Pad, but the first Game & Watch love of anyone that had one was probably one of the classic single screen, foamy, rubbery button games with Game A and Game B (usually harder, meaning faster), a clock and an alarm; and a little metal ring on the back you could pull out to make it stand up!

My first experience of Game & Watch, and one I’d continue to experience for what must have been hundreds of hours for years after, was Fire. Didn’t belong to me – was my auntie’s and resided at my Grandma’s house where we spent every Saturday afternoon, and whilst I must have played it all over the house, my abiding memory is stealing her armchair next to the big 1970’s mahogany-effect dresser while she was cooking lunch and playing it in comfort there!

This was originally one of the early Silver generation of Game & Watch, but the one I played was part of the Wide Screen generation released a year or so later in late 1981. This update looked similar but was nicer to hold, had a great looking case, even better looking graphics, and was widescreen! Either way, you were catching people jumping out of different floors in a burning building and bouncing them on your stretcher into an ambulance. Things soon got crazy frantic as you literally juggled multiple people bouncing at different speeds. Fantastic game! Even better was the alarm function though, with the fireman waving his bell about with a crazed look on his face!

I reckon I’d have first played Fire in the middle of 1982, which was enough bugging time for my parents to have got me my one and only Game & Watch for Christmas 1982. I’ve no idea how that ended up being Snoopy Tennis though. It could have been my idea – at aged ten I was definitely a fan of Charlie Brown in comic and TV form, but not a huge one; he might be better known for his Christmas and Halloween exploits, but was as much a part of school summer holiday morning TV back then as Roland Rat, Why Don’t You? and Huckleberry Finn (or Silas if you were unlucky that year). It was probably around the time I started playing tennis at school too, which I always enjoyed, but again, not a mega fan. Alternatively, that might have been the one that was in stock wherever it came from! Doesn’t really matter which because it was definitely the right choice!

Like all the great games from this period, it’s all so simple, so skill-based and so fiendishly addictive! You’re playing as Snoopy, stood with his tennis racket waiting for Charlie Brown to serve a ball at him, high, low or in the middle, and you’re moving up and down a tree to return them with perfect timing (first time or you’re screwed waiting for the animation to restart!) from the right position. When you return a shot, it flies over the top of Charlie Brown, who’ll be busy lining up his next ball, but now and again Lucy will appear on the wooden platform above him and hit the ball back at twice the speed, and if you return that she might disappear for a bit and let the ball go, or she might keep returning it like this for a few more shots at the same time as Charlie Brown is lobbing his balls at you with increasing frequency.

You get 2 points for every Charlie Brown ball returned and 3 points for Lucy’s, and as your score increases, so does the speed! It all starts out very sedate, especially on Game A (where Game B has more balls that move faster), but it won’t be long before there’s all sorts of balls moving at different speeds all over the screen, and your main task is judging which one you’re going to hit first. Miss three balls and it’s game over. Get to 100 points and it slows down again for a while before getting faster until another 100 points passes. Get to 200 points, 500 points, 1200 points, 1500 points… (yeah, right) and your misses are all cancelled out; should you have got there with no misses, then you’ve got about a minute of bonus time, where Charlie Brown’s shots are worth 5 points and Lucy’s are 6 points.

You’re controlling Snoopy with up and down buttons on the right side and a hit button on the left for your perfectly timed returns. The buttons feel great – really tactile and responsive and a bit spongy. And after about ten minutes of play, will be surrounded by a sweaty fingerprint outline spreading across the main case; and being able to wipe that away is actually the main benefit of getting that brief slowdown every 100 points!

The character graphics were incredibly sharp and perfectly realised – something these LCD games were years ahead of home computers in achieving – and these are perfectly complemented by the coloured overlays of Lucy’s platform on one side and Snoopy’s dog house on the other, with a wonderfully detailed and shaded tree for Snoopy to return shots from and Woodstock to sit in his nest surveying the action (at least until the alarm is ringing and he jumps out of his nest to the sound). The great attention to detail is capped off by the tufts of green grass along the bottom of the screen. The user interface is just perfect too; completely unobtrusive, but all-important stuff like your score and the current number of misses – shown by broken bottles – are just a tiny change in focus away without having to move your eyes from the very frantic later game action.

The other incredible thing about these games was the battery life. You’d easily get months of play out of two LR43 or SR43 cell batteries before the screen started fading and the sound disappeared, and, from experience later, you could literally leave it for years sleeping away and it would come back to life! And speaking of back to life, it still works absolutely perfectly today and is still as fiendishly addictive as ever!

Despite how pictures might look, because cameras don’t seem to like the technology when it’s running and show blemishes that just aren’t there, Snoopy Tennis and it’s early Game & Watch brethren (unlike some of the far more complex later releases like the Gauntlet abomination by Tiger Electronics!) are utterly timeless. And this is true whether you’re talking about the technology, the graphics or the gameplay – nothing has dated and it never will. It also sold 1.2 million units after its release in 1982, so if you don’t have it, I’ll bet it’s not that hard to track down. And whatever the asking price is when you read this, after almost 40 years of enjoyment at the time of writing, it will be worth every penny…

Just don’t push down on the LCD screen, no matter how cool it looks, because it’s not going to last another 40 years if you do!

A Look at Star Wars Curio Deathstar Interceptor

A Look at Star Wars Curio Deathstar Interceptor

The April 1985 issue was when I decided I needed to buy my own copy of Computer & Video Games magazine, and not rely on reading hand-me-downs from friends when they were feeling generous. What might have sparked the decision was the type-in game Starship Victory for the unexpanded VIC-20; I was big into those at the time (as you can read about here) and there was no way I was missing out on a cool Asteroids clone like this! There were also a few reviews that probably caught my eye – at the time, there was still pretty good coverage for the VIC-20 here, but of course we were in the minority… and you couldn’t help looking over the fence at what you were missing out on for the big new machines! Impossible Mission, Ghostbusters and Cauldron being of particular note that month! It wasn’t so much jealousy – at least for a year or two – but just wanting to lap up the massive amount of exponentially increasingly incredible games that were now coming out on a massive amount of computers; in that month alone, a quick scan just now revealed stuff for BBC, Electron, C64, Spectrum, VIC-20, MSX, Atari, Amstrad, Dragon and Texas, and I’m sure I missed some PET and C16 stuff too!

I’ve never been that big into superhero stuff, but I always consider the May 1985 cover of C&VG as iconic as well as fairly unique in its styling for them. There’s so much going on in both the main illustration itself and also the text blurb around it. Amazingly, if you actually read it, it was mostly all just promoting stuff you could win, including a copy of text-adventure Questprobe 3, featuring the featured Fantastic Four, but not forgetting a map of Alien 8, which was about the first thing shoved in your face after the contents page! What really stuck in my mind that month though was the advert inside the cover for a game called Deathstar Interceptor by System 3 Software.

I might not have been into superheroes, but Star Wars was another matter, and that X-Wing and the three screenshots had me hooked (mostly because the text was pink on black which was near enough to my red-black colour blindness to make it not worth trying to read). Definitely a Star Wars game though, even though it doesn’t mention it! Strange… Actually, it barely even mentions what the game’s called, which is why it might have long-since escaped my memory by the time I eventually got a Spectrum, and would do so for another 35 years until I was sorting through a stack of old computer games magazines in the garage!

“The Fight Continues… On The Spectrum. …Earth is threatened by an Empire Deathstar, can you penetrate its defences, destroy it before it destroys you? …Deathstar Interceptor gives you 12 screens of 3D graphics, super smooth 3D animations, unbelievable sound effects, music, 4 skill levels and hiscore table …this is the ultimate challenge! …This game has to be seen to be believed! You have not seen what the 48K Spectrum is capable of until you have played Deathstar Interceptor.”

I was probably just as well off with the screenshots! The first one is the first part of the game. A real oddity where you’re taking off in your X-Wing, which at some point will veer off to the side of its own accord and you have to guide it back towards the hyperspace thingy (I guess) at the top. It’s not very scientific and seems to be a matter of luck if your single press in the right direction actually gets you into the middle of it or not, allowing you to proceed into space and the second screenshot!

This looks fantastic; it’s a kind of Galaxians with tie-fighters and some other nasties, and you have horizontal and a bit of vertical movement… Expert tip – move to the top left and nothing can shoot you! As this is going on, the Empire Deathstar is getting bigger and bigger it’s close enough, then you’re into the trench. There’s a couple of phases, involving dodging lasers from the sides then shooting some more enemies, then either I got lucky with an unintentional shot to the exhaust port (unintentional because I never even noticed it) or it does it for you.

Either way, you’re rewarded by the ultimate insult to the red-black colour blindness sufferer – the red explosion in the black of space! Like the advert, I don’t think I was missing a lot here; it was hardly the mind-blower when the same thing happened in the Star Wars arcade game. Then you start all over again, looping until you die and you get a really nice rendition of the Star Wars theme.

If you look hard enough, the advert also mentions it’s available for the Commodore 64. Not surprised they didn’t make a big deal of it though – it’s a shocker! The Spectrum game looks like a Star Wars game and has a bit of variety to its “12 screens of 3D graphics” but for as much as I played of it, the second stage en-route to the Empire Deathstar is a really ropey shooter, then when you get to the trench you’re still playing the same ropey shooter as before but against a trench background. And you’re not even fighting tie fighters in the C64 version, but what look like coat hangers and hamburgers!

The best thing here is the Empire Deathstar design in the second stage though – for some reason, the C64 version has the big round shooting part at the top of the Empire Deathstar repeated at the bottom too! Two death bits! Even the Star Wars theme sounds better on the Spectrum, and when did you last hear that?

As you can tell, at the time of writing in the year 2020 I’ve now played both versions (actually both emulated on a PlayStation Classic console!), and I even got to the end of the Spectrum’s loop. And I think I appreciated that version at least a little more than I would of in 1986 or 1987 when I got my Spectrum +2 because there was loads more going on there then than hunting out this old Star Wars curio I couldn’t remember the name of anyway. The Spectrum version is really fun!

But what about Star Wars? Is this a Star Wars game? Or was it really the case the in the wild west of video games in the mid-80’s you could get away with ripping off even Star Wars this blatantly? Well, partially at least it seems. I’ve learnt recently that the Star Wars theme tune was licensed, but as for the rest, probably not! Which might explain certain aspects of the advert, and using words like “Empire Deathstar,” and not even mentioning their limited official Star Wars licensing, let alone barely mentioning what the game is called! A curio indeed.

My Life With… Ganymede – VIC-20

My Life With… Ganymede – VIC-20

There’s a reason “Graphics” was usually the first thing scored in a review by Computer & Video Games, Commodore User, et al, and that’s because despite what anyone said then or still says today, you generally can judge a book by it’s cover! And that’s definitely how we judged games sitting on the shelves of WHSmith or Boots or the local newsagent in the eighties because that was often all you had to go on! Graphics have always been a yardstick, then, now and forever, and for the developer at that time it must have been a nightmare keeping up, given the massive leaps that were being made from release to release – you just have to compare something like Hungry Horace to R-Type or Chase HQ, all on the same piece of Spectrum hardware and all arriving within a few short years of each other!

Being blown away by how games looked was a regular occurrence – something that hasn’t been regular for the best part of two decades now at least! Nothing was ever going to look better than this, until the next issue of C&VG at least! But as anyone that was there at the time will remember, our Commodore and Sinclair and BBC (and, for some weirdoes, Amstrad) computers weren’t just about games. They were about productivity, creativity and doing your homework too! Or at least making your own games by typing in magazine or book listings.

Being blown away by type-in games wasn’t, on the other hand, a regular occurrence. It was very rare you knew what you were getting (or not getting as they very rarely worked) – you just blindly typed in the BASIC commands (or machine code if you were a real pretentious masochist). If you were lucky you’d get a description of the greatest game you were ever likely to play, then some info about how it worked and maybe some diagrams of some sprites on a grid, then pages and pages of 30 C=23: R=33: DD=32321, 40= POKEFNA(0),+A, CS : SX=X and so on… and was that really a space between the letters and the colon, and how come zero has brackets around it on this line but not in the next POKEFNA on the next line, and so on. But after hours of typing it in, you’d finally get to the really fun part – trying to work out where you’d made mistakes because it wouldn’t load! Anyway, in addition to all of that, if you were really, really lucky, you might get a screenshot. Like this one!

If you’re interested – and I’m assuming you are – that one is Spacewar for the VIC-20, from VIC PROGRAMMES Volume 1 by the wonderful Nick Hampshire, who wrote this and another book I owned called VIC GRAPHICS that were genuinely a big part of my early computing and gaming life. All of his programmes worked too, though his graphics are another story… as wonderful as everything should have looked, what I’d failed to notice when I bought that book was the sticker on the back saying I needed a Commodore Super Expander Cartridge to run anything in it. Wasn’t a cheap book either. Oops! But I did enjoy reading what I could have got up to all the same, and when I finally got a Spectrum +2, did actually recreate a lot of the listings on there too, so thanks Nick!

However, Nick Hampshire wasn’t behind my favourite book for the VIC-20. And as great as Spacewar still looks today, I don’t remember being blown away by it or anything else in that book, or in More Games for Your VIC, or Creepy Computer Games, or any of the dozen or so other type-in code books I owned. As I said, being blown away by type-in games wasn’t a regular occurrence… But it did happen! Once! Let me introduce you to my favourite computer book ever, VIC Innovative Computing by Clifford Ramshaw.

Classic piece of 80’s design, but don’t judge the book by the cover – check out the luxurious, all glossy screenshots you got peppered throughout the book. And check out how cool those games look!

The one that really got me was Assassin. If you bought a game that looked like that in 1982, when the book was published, you’d be overjoyed! It turned out to be a really cool game too, and of course, it wasn’t the only one… But before we get there, I’d encourage you to judge this book by its back cover. Just check out the space shuttle and the alien mothership. Unreal!

We’ve now established you could be blown away by how multiple type-in games, all in the same book, looked, but even I’m not so shallow that a game will be covered here – amongst my favourites ever – just for how it looks. In fact, when we talk about Ganymede for the VIC-20, we’re talking about the most basic-looking of even the most BASIC games listings! Definitely not worth of a glossy page in VIC Innovative Computing. Just text covering your in-games variables and a list of commands…

You’re managing a moon base on Ganymede, moon of Jupiter, and you need to set up mines on the planet’s surface to get the ore you need to import oxygen to keep your people alive to build ships to set up more mines and so on. Keep it going long enough to make enough money and the government of Earth will be very grateful for your service. Screw it up by not making enough to buy enough oxygen to go around and keep building space ships and mining, and either the people will revolt or you’ll just run out of them, meaning game over.

(At this point I’d normally share one of my own screenshots, but I can only emulate VIC-20 at the moment, and the only copy of the original .prg file I can find on the internet just generates a syntax error when you try and load it… and no, I’m not typing the whole thing in again for a screenshot! Therefore I’ve taken the liberty of taking the only known screenshot on the internet, from the same place as the program file, the wonderful VIC-20 LISTINGS page here. Which has every single game listing in the book and many others for download – just can’t guarantee they work)!

Seeing the code is interesting because after it sets up your user interface, and sets you up to import oxygen, build and load up ships, send them off, mine, come back then sell their booty, the majority seems to be ways of scuppering your plans! This means you’ll be trading-off between fuel loads, oxygen imports and ore sales, as well as reacting to variables like storms taking out your mines, or running out of fuel before a ship gets back because you didn’t have enough money to fill it up before it left.

There’s also ships stranded to worry about, babies being born to maintain your population, fluctuations in the price of ore and transportation and various other balancing acts that all make for a very addictive game that at the very least you’d have happily paid £1.99 for!

I did a lot of type-in games on the VIC-20, and the Spectrum when I got one, and some of them (when they worked) might have looked and occasionally sounded better, but I don’t remember anything coming close to the longevity and comparability to proper games than Ganymede! It might be all but forgotten in the annals of gaming history, but there’s a niche within a niche right here that still salutes what an achievement it was!

As great as glossy screenshots are, I’m going to conclude by going one better here with another game from the same book, which you can see peaking out next to the open drawer bottom right. Grand Prix was a kind poor-man’s Supersprint, and this is my brother playing it in my bedroom on the black and white portable that ended up there. One car, one track that you went around and around, but we had a great time with it! You can also see the start of my games collection there, with Crazy Kong by Interceptor Software at the front – more on that another time!

Before we go, I can’t resist sharing this machine code type-in treat from Your Spectrum magazine from 1985. The Grid. For all you pretentious masochists! Enjoy…

My Life With… Agent X – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Agent X – ZX Spectrum

I have two very distinct memories of buying stuff from Boots (when they were still much more than a chemist) in May 1987 – that month being significant for my birthday, meaning I had more money then than at any other time of the year and could afford to buy two things! The first was U2’s The Joshua Tree; my £4.99 contributing to it becoming the fastest selling album in British music history. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favourite albums (maybe top 50), but side one is without doubt one of the strongest ever, and to this day I still listen to it regularly whenever I notice it in my record rack. That said, there’s a moment in their 1988 Rattle & Hum movie (about 55 minutes in) where you hear the keyboard intro from Where The Streets Have No Name kick in, and the words “Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Arizona” appear on the screen, and to me those words and the next 5 minutes of live performance were the most rock star things I’d ever seen to that point! If I was here naming the top ten things that inspired me to form a band, that would definitely be one of them, but that’s something for another day…

Back to the slightly less glamorous lower floor of Boots, at the bottom of the spiral walkway in the even less glamorous Harpur Centre in Bedford, and from the very same entertainment section we come to my second purchase. This time we’re slightly later in May, during school half term and I’m with my Mum and two brothers, which I know because my other very distinct memory is walking with them to my Grandma’s house on the way back from town, reading the Agent X cassette inlay!

The reason I’m writing about Agent X – or Agent X in the Brain Drain Caper to give it its full name – right now rather than something else is because I was just flicking through the June 1987 Your Sinclair magazine and noticed it climbing up the top ten. Actually, it was the whole top ten that caught my eye first, which, including Agent X, features no less than four of my top ten favourite games ever – Feud, at number one where it deserves to be in whatever games chart you care to mention, plus Olli and Lissa (not Lisa, Your Sinclair, but see my post on that here for the full rundown!) and Gauntlet. Pretty good month for games in my opinion!

Also of note in that copy of Your Sinclair, just before the chart rundown, was the legendary advert for Barbarian featuring Wolf from Gladiators and Page 3 stunner Maria Whittaker, which I may have mentioned before, but as it’s of so much cultural significance to the 15-year old boy in 1987, bears repeating again here!

Back to Agent X, it’s interesting it was climbing the charts now because I think it had been released at some point in late 1986, and seems to have been reviewed pretty well in early 1987, but as a £1.99 release from Mastertronic, wonder why it took a while to get going? If I’d noticed it in the shops earlier, I’d have certainly bought it on the strength of the screenshots on the back of the box alone. Maybe everyone else was strapped for cash until their birthday too!

It wasn’t just how good it looked on the box that caught your eye, but the variety you were getting too. This was pretty much unheard of until now in a budget title – it looked and read like you were going to be part of an entire James Bond movie! “A multi-load mega action adventure, in which you set out to stop some lunatic scientist turning the President into a warmongering maniac. You are the only one who can help. If you’re superb at espionage, karate, driving, flying helicopters and bomb aiming you MIGHT have a chance. Just.” Not entirely sure that multi-load was the key selling point they thought it was at the start of that pitch, but what’s not to love about the rest?

After your first multi-load, the game starts out with you in your sports car on the way to the abandoned mine / underground lair. This is a really nicely presented section, playing a bit like a simplified isometric Spy Hunter but instead of guns your car can jump. Speaking of nicely presented, your current health is displayed by your agent, cigarette in mouth, moving ever closer to his gravestone in a beautiful moonlit graveyard. What you want to do is get to the end of this section with that intact! It’s not that hard to reach the end but to have a chance later on you need to get there without the tanks coming towards you, and dozens of lorries and police cars in front and behind, knocking you into the kerbs or various holes in the road and causing damage.

Another fantastic multi-load and you need to stop the tape, press any key but do not rewind! The next section is switching to a Kung-Fu Master (see my views on that here) style side-scrolling beat ‘em up. Now this is where the challenge ramps up… As well as the colour clash, with your man changing from white to whatever garish colour the current background feature happens to be – green doors, yellow control panels, pink No Smoking signs and so on; make a feature of the colour clash and it’s not a problem anymore… They should have put that on the box with multi-load too! If you get to the end of this section halfway to your grave you’re doing pretty well. As well as regular goons, you’ve got what looks like guys in capes and fencing masks, unicyclists and runaway minecarts to deal with coming at different speeds from all sides. Real damage limitation stuff as you kick and jump and flying kick your way gradually to the left until the relief (and joy) of your next multi-load appears from nowhere!

Next we’re in an Operation Wolf (yes, you guessed it, more here!) style setting, and you’re face-to-face with the lunatic scientist in his lab! Visually this is really striking, even if you don’t really want to think too hard about what’s going on here. He’s in the middle of the screen in a kind of lab control room, surrounded by eight mechanical doors that shoot out 3D shapes (missiles, according to the depressingly slow progress bar at the side) at you. You need to move your crosshair to shoot them, which is greeted by a speech bubble full of comic-style obscenities from him, otherwise you get a “Ha” if you miss, and a big step towards your grave. This is another tough section that’s really going to put a strain on your joystick as you wrench it all over the place, especially when things get a bit frantic towards the end. Hang on for long enough, and your man lines up his crosshairs on the lunatic scientist with a “This one’s for you pal!” and he blows a whole through the glass and takes his head clean off leaving a smoking neck hole. Cool!

Make the most of this multi-load as it’s your last one – you’re now on the home stretch, flying Airwolf style in a helicopter to get a bomb from a platform out in the sea. By the way, you won’t find a link to any post on Airwolf here any time soon. You’d soon get bored of me going on about the first three screens – I might be able to beat Mega Man but I’m not that good! The first part of this is pretty simple, flying through gates and avoiding missiles, then things get a bit harder with guys on jetpacks (wait for it…) shooting at your approach to the bomb, which you’re going to bring all the way back to Omega Base as the underground lair seems to be called! This is a great looking side-scrolling section that doesn’t have that much to it but it’s really nice to control the helicopter when you’re at speed on the return leg. Or the return return leg after you re-plant the bomb and get the twist…

As you can tell, I still love this game! The variety works brilliantly, nothing is too challenging that you won’t get through it sooner rather than later, then it’s just about getting good enough at each section to set you up for finishing the next. Apart from VIC-20 text adventure Pirate Cove, I think this was one of the first games I ever finished, and as I write this almost 33 years later, it’s the last game I finished too. The best £1.99 I ever spent? Well, it’s one of the top three at least!

Based on the commercial success of the first game, Agent X did come back for more with different genres tackled in Agent X II, but it never really clicked with me. The first section was a very frustrating side-scrolling shooter that looked like Zynaps meets Jetpac (here you go!) that just went on and on for way too long. Then you had a platforming section where you had to jump about collecting codes, followed by a bonkers version of Breakout where everything moved too quick and out of control for its own good, and was more luck than judgement, though you would get lucky most of the time. It did feature one of the Spectrum 128’s most acclaimed pieces of music, so worth seeking out for that, but otherwise was a bit anticlimactic in every other respect (especially the abrupt ending). Better to stick with the original if you want a proper good time

My Life With… Jetpac (VIC-20)

My Life With… Jetpac (VIC-20)

When I started thinking about Jetpac on the VIC-20 recently, a couple of questions immediately came to mind: Where does it fit in my top VIC-20 games? And because I kind of already knew it wasn’t going to figure quite as highly as it maybe should… Where does it fit in the top VIC-20 games?

Coming back to the first question, this one is easy thanks to my big nerd list of my favourite games of all time ever.

  1. The Perils of Willy
  2. Andes Attack
  3. Jetpac
  4. Omega Race
  5. Submarine Commander

The Perils of Willy (read more here) will always be my favourite VIC-20 game, but this was the first time I’d thought about a top five, and genuinely didn’t know most of what was going to follow when I went through my big list looking for VIC-20 games from top to bottom. Andes Attack, Jeff Minter’s llama-focussed Defender clone, was a surprise in second place – without thinking much I actually thought I was going to see Submarine Commander there! But thinking much about it, it’s probably right in my mind. As is Omega Race in fifth place, and our subject here, Jetpac, in third. I don’t like that Pinball Wizard (read more here) isn’t there though! But taking away the all important nostalgia factor, we come to the second question – where does it fit in the top VIC-20 games?

Even through my rose-tinted spectacles, I can look at my list and say that The Perils of Willy [maybe!] isn’t the best game on the VIC-20, though I won’t hear any argument that it isn’t up there somewhere!!! But seriously, looking at my list here for the first time, extracted like this as my VIC-20 top five, the first thing that came to mind was hang on, why isn’t Jetpac in first place? Instinctively, surely there’s no better game on the platform from a technical viewpoint, or aesthetically, or in terms of gameplay or longevity? From my top five, maybe Submarine Commander is an equivalent technical marvel, but I reluctantly concede that its gameplay has a more niche appeal. Omega Race also needs to be in there as an almost flawless conversion of the incredible playable – and re-playable – twist on Asteroids arcade game. Add a few other titles I’m familiar with, and after far more personal deliberation that was probably necessary, we have this:

  1. Jetpac
  2. Omega Race
  3. Gorf
  4. Jump Jet
  5. Pirate Cove

We’ll get into Jetpac (finally) in a minute. In second and third place, I could easily switch positions between Omega Race and another incredible arcade conversion feat in Gorf, a multi-level spin on Space Invaders that included screen effects like I’d never seen before, not to mention the biggest enemy I’d ever seen with the Flag Ship appearing every four levels! Then we have Jump Jet (read more here), which is a Harrier flight-sim that at the time I got it was surely as good as flight sims would ever get! I could argue that A.C.E. (Air Combat Emulator) – coincidentally another flight-sim – should be in this spot too, but that was even harder than this was, and its plane couldn’t take off vertically from an aircraft carrier! It never made me air-sick like its box said it might either… Then we have Pirate Cove, part of that incredibly immersive VIC-20 text-based adventure series (almost any of which could really be here instead if you prefer) by Scott Adams where you “Go North” or “Use Mongoose” (to kill a snake if I remember right)! And if I also remember right, the first game I ever finished, not long after the mongoose incident!

List complete, and there we have it. Jetpac is officially the best game ever on the VIC-20! We should find out why.

Jetpac was released by Ultimate in 1983, but I’m fairly certain I got this after Christmas in 1984; it definitely needed an 8K expansion so it wouldn’t have been much earlier than that. Without doubt it was the screenshots on an advert or review I’d seen in C&VG or Commodore User, or on the back of the box, that attracted me to it, and amazingly they were probably even VIC-20 screenshots and not, as was usually the case, nefariously hijacked from a C64 version (which in this case never actually appeared). They could have come from the Spectrum version, but any VIC owner could proudly say that even if they did, you’d struggle to tell the difference. In fact, this was especially true because the VIC-20 version had colour clash that any Spectrum owner would have been proud of!

You play as Jetman, though bit like Mario’s first appearance in Donkey Kong, I don’t remember ever knowing him as Jetman – he was just an astronaut with a jet-pack and a blaster who had crashed on a planet far, far away and had to rebuild his rocket from the bits strewn about the place then fuel it up and start making his way home. All of this happens on a single wraparound screen, with three rocket parts that had to be dropped on top of each other in order, which you’d find lying on the ground or on mid-air ledges, whilst fending off the planet’s fauna that randomly flies around the place impeding your quest. Once you’ve put the rocket back together, fuel starts dropping out of the sky, also randomly landing around the screen, together with bonus jewels and stuff, which you collect and drop onto your rocket until it’s full up. Then you walk back into the rocket, it takes off and you start collecting fuel on the next planet, which is a similar screen but with a whole new set of meanies to attend to.

The game loops around a set of four levels, after which you’ve obviously crashed again and need to rebuild the rocket from scratch, which makes for the perfect setting for the game’s score-chasing intentions. This simplicity is what makes the game great – this gameplay loop is without fault, and it sits in the company of Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, etc. as timeless games that play just as well today, still offering endless challenge and replayability.

The sound is very functional and of its time, but the aforementioned graphics are absolutely outstanding, and unlike most VIC games stand up just as well today, with big bold sprites for the main character and the various enemies, and this incredible sense of scale as the rocket is put back together. And when you eventually fill it up with enough fuel, that sense of exhilaration as it takes of and exits the screen is still there today too! The planet design, in contrast, couldn’t be more basic, with three platforms suspended over blackness – there’s not even any ground at the bottom of the screen! But you won’t even notice that when you’re frantically trying to create a path through a kind of large-scale bullet-hell array of fast-paced aliens, either by shooting or dodging or sheer fluke as you panic your way around to get to a rocket part or fuel drop or tasty morsel. And I say you won’t even notice it because for all the hours I’ve spent playing this over decades, I didn’t either until just now! There’s a lovely subtle flame effect from your jet-pack, which moves as you change direction, and from the rocket too as it flies up the screen; the aliens have their own explosion animation too, and I really like that this happens when they crash into a platform as well as when you shoot them. Aside from a bit of flicker, you really have to pinch yourself and say yes, this really is happening on a VIC-20!

And all of this is why Jetpac sits at the top of the pile for the VIC-20, even if it’s not actually as good as The Perils of Willy in my opinion!

I’ve never played any of the Jetman sequels, and have steered clear of the overly restyled XBOX title Jetpac Refuelled, but did eventually play the Spectrum version of Jetpac in 2018, when the Rare Replay collection went backwards compatible on XBOX One. You’ve got more screen space to play in and it’s the same fantastic, timeless game that the VIC-20 offered, but it doesn’t seem quite as fast and frantic, so I’m sticking with the VIC as having the superior version despite only having half the levels of the Spectrum version. And saying that is even more incredible when you come back to what a technical achievement it is that it’s on there at all, when it’s not such a technical marvel on the Spectrum; and when you consider the pedigree of Ultimate’s other games on the Spectrum. Really incredible!

My Life With… Operation Wolf (ZX Spectrum / Atari ST)

My Life With… Operation Wolf (ZX Spectrum / Atari ST)

I vaguely remember seeing Operation Wolf, with its mounted Uzi, in an arcade, but where it really made an impression was long before that in Computer & Video Games magazine’s Arcade Action section. Whilst I’d generally skip over that section with just a few glances at the screenshots, I remember three games on those pages that absolutely blew me away, and there was no chance in hell there’d ever be home computer conversions! They were R-Type, Out Run, and, of course, Operation Wolf, where all your Rambo fantasies could finally come true with graphics like you’d never seen before! 

As a side note, at the time of writing in February 2019, I recently picked up arcade perfect conversions of R-Type and Out Run on the Nintendo Switch; they did come, and with Out Run in particular, I still can’t quite believe what I’m seeing on my TV screen even three decades later- when you consider how amazed I was by the ZX Spectrum version when it came, and how bad everyone else seems to think that version is, maybe not a surprise!

I don’t think I’d ever wanted a game as much as I did this; with arcade conversions, especially such high profile ones, expectations of quality were always secondary to the fact that it was just coming to the Spectrum! It arrived in all its monochrome glory for Christmas 1988, and if I remember right was a present from my grandma and auntie. What I definitely remember right is my first time playing it on Christmas Day evening, in my auntie’s bedroom, on her Spectrum+2 and a 14-inch black and white portable TV. As was often the case playing Spectrum games at the time, the fact it lacked colour didn’t, in reality, matter that much! That said, let’s not forgot it more than made up for the lack of colour in the main game by filling the little “suiting up” montage you got when you first loaded the game up with the most garish colours it could manage!

On the home versions, the Uzi was replaced by a crosshair, which controlled fine with a joystick, as the screen scrolled from left to right and enemy soldiers, tanks, gunships and gunboats filled the screen from all directions to bring you death. As well as your Uzi, you could also bring them death with your limited supply of grenades; letting the screen fill up with vehicles and soldiers then dispatching them all at once this way was a great feeling! As was shooting one of the daggers out of sky as it flew at the screen before it hit you and briefly stayed in place, full stab.

The story, such as it was, was true to the arcade original – go through six military themed levels in jungles, prison camps, airports and various bases to rescue the hostages. Each one was a bit more than just shooting everything in sight; you’d have a task like cutting off the enemy communications or getting information out of the enemies, although all of that did involve shooting everything that moved unless it was one of the fleeing civilians or nurses carrying some unfortunate in a stretcher who shouted “NO!” if you shot them. The first few levels were all do-able but I’m not sure I ever got to the end of the final level in the airport. 

The Spectrum version was one of the best arcade conversions the machine got, with absolutely stunning looking graphics that perfectly captured the feel of the original. And there were so many types enemies on screen at once in the distance and in the foreground (including the one that looked like something out of The Village People) and all over the place without any kind of slowdown or mess. The +2 version sounded good too, with a suitably testosterone-juiced theme tune. Overall, out of the two versions I owned, it’s the one I really remember most fondly…

As time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to dip into recollections from decades long past, but in the case of my Atari ST Operation Wolf experience, I have a major helping hand! Christmas always brought with it a diary for the coming year, and in the days after Christmas you would start re-writing your friends’ phone numbers, family birthdays and school holidays into your latest pocket-sized planner. They always had a theme too, like fishing or cycling or football, with half the pages full of related encyclopaedic content. And for the first few days of the year, you might even use it to record what you’d been up to… “I rushed home to play Op Wolf and it lived up to my high expectations. It is brilliant, the only problem being that it is on three disks. I got to stage 5 on my first go.” The diary then goes on to describing watching Lethal Weapon that evening!

This was all around the beginning of 1990 for me, but the ST version came out around the same time as the Spectrum one, and was probably the only dampener on that version – as great as the Spectrum version looked, in magazines like C&VG you were seeing it side by side with this incredible, virtually arcade perfect looking version on the ST. As well as the glorious graphics, you also had all the little details like the pigs running around you could shoot for extra ammo, and some great enemy death animations especially when you shot one of the guys up close to you. And more than anything, it had a mouse that made shooting stuff a lot easier than with a joystick! This was a really great conversion, but what’s interesting to note is that I don’t remember ever being blown away by it, like I had been the Spectrum version just over a year earlier – it didn’t take long at all to become spoilt by the incredible games that just came as standard in the next-gen machine. Or maybe it was just all the disk swapping.

And despite getting to stage 5 on my first go, I never did get to the end of the game here either!