My Life With… Olli and Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Olli and Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle – ZX Spectrum

For a couple of years, aged fourteen and fifteen, my then-best friend Thomas and I decided it would be a good idea to get each other no income-friendly Christmas presents. For Christmas 1986, knowing a Spectrum +2 was on the way, he acquired a C90 mix tape of Spectrum games for me from another Speccy-owning friend of his. Unfortunately the majority never worked, though I do remember being blown away by my ill-gotten copy of wire-frame helicopter sim, Tomahawk, for actually loading as much as anything else! Speaking of wires, we both dabbled in electronics at that time too, and I recall getting him a selection of different types of wire in return!  Anyway, things went slightly better in 1987 when he got sweets and I fared even better than an industrial load of our favourite lemonade crystals with what would become one of my top five favourite games of all time!

I’m not entirely sure how Olli and Lissa eluded me for another year; it was a £1.99 budget game from Firebird in 1986 and I bought some right turds at that price through the year! Everything about it was right up my increasingly spooktastic street, albeit in a very cute, cartoony way. But finally we were united, and on Christmas Eve I rode home across town from Thomas’ house on my bike, present safely secured in the pannier bag on the back, completely unaware of how much I was going to fall in love with jumping about an eight-roomed, cruel, beautifully atmospheric yellow castle over the next few hours… until I was dragged off to midnight mass, though at least it got that out of the way for Christmas Day to be lived to the full!

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As I write this, I’ve got the title screen playing its looping bursts of multi-layered gothic Spectrum chip-tune, interspersed with pauses for a clap of thunder (white noise) before it ends in a subtle crescendo and you get what seems to be a slightly longer clap of “thunder” before it starts again. It really is one of my favourite pieces of 48K Spectrum music, which I realise isn’t saying a lot, but it does a wonderful job of setting the scene for what follows!

The “menue” screen then introduces the characters while the music thankfully keeps looping for extended enjoyment. The story goes that the ghost of Sir Humphrey needs you, the titular Olli, to get him a load of ingredients so Lissa can mix up an invisibility potion in her big cauldron and he can scare off the folks that are planning on shipping his castle to America. We could debate the amount of fear induced by visible versus invisible ghost, though I suppose it depends on what he’s planning on doing while he’s invisible, so let’s just accept the storyline might not be the game’s greatest strength!

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The very first (of the aforementioned eight) screen is everything I love about this game. The creepy atmosphere is just incredible, and bizarrely everything being yellow somehow adds to the atmos! The attention to detail in the little 3D castle windows or the ornate stone flourishes above the portcullises really bring the castle alive. And it doesn’t stop with the backgrounds – don’t move for a second and Olli’s blobby sprite will turn and question what you’re playing at, then start tapping his foot impatiently. Meanwhile, up at the top of the screen, Sir Humphrey’s ghost paces (in a floating kind of way) up and down the platform where Lissa is waiting to mix stuff up.

When you start, Sir Humphrey will tell you what ingredient you need to find next in a little speech bubble, then off you trot to get it. A strange menagerie of gnomes, ghosts, spiders, little paranormal octopus things, bats and a nasty caterpillar will hinder your progress as you hunt around the castle then outside it through the woods and caverns and back across the ramparts to find the his ingredients then make your way back to Lissa and her cauldron where she’ll reward you with a kiss before you set off for the next one.

Not that you’re ever going to see much of that saucy action – this is one brutal, pixel-perfect left, right and jump platformer, and the sight of Sir Humphrey battering you with a brush when you run out of energy (which quickly ticks down regardless of you hitting stuff) is a much more familiar sight!

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You will spend a very long time jumping over beasties then trying to go up and down stairs before that come back for you in the gap before their rapid return from their movement loop in the first two castle screens before you even get a occasional sniff of the outside world! But given how much I love that castle, it never really put me off, and seeing the spiders on the spooky trees or jumping across the lake was only ever an infrequent but unnecessary bonus. Instead, I did (and still do) while away many a happy hour just dying over and over again… in the cruellest, yellowest, best ever castle in gaming history!

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As a footnote, there was eventually a trilogy of these games, but neither of the sequels ever really did much for me. Olli and Lissa II: Halloween, released a year after the original in 1987, had you as a witch on a broom and was a poor-man’s Cauldron (literally!) for as much as I ever played of it. By the time Olli and Lissa III: The Candlelight Adventure arrived in 1989, I’d jumped ship to Atari ST and only played it much more recently. In its defence, it is a more direct evolution of the first game with a more multi-coloured, Firelord-esque graphical style, but it definitely ain’t top five games of all time material like its predecessor!

My Life With… Joe Blade – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Joe Blade – ZX Spectrum

My Catholic school education across three schools in Bedford always involved a bus journey, and starting upper school in September 1985 took the bus journey right across town (and seemingly through most of its streets) into uncharted territory to me, far north of the river. The bus stop specified on my free bus-pass was ten minutes’ walk away, but over time us paupers from the south of the river realised that the drivers were happy with a flash of the card and probably wouldn’t notice if we started going rogue and getting off the bus in the town centre and changing to a more direct one that stopped right near my house. And for the most part, it worked, though there was the double-jeopardy of the mythical inspector getting on which provided an ever constant fear!

Then there was the additional thrill of sprinting across town from one bus to the next to not miss the first one home (otherwise there was little point in the whole exercise). But as we became more experienced in being teenagers, that sprint became a leisurely stroll via our favourite shops, namely WHSmith to see if the new Computer & Video Games or Smash Hits was out, a newsagent that was the first to stock Cherry Coke, and a tiny independent games shop in the newly opened Boulevards shopping arcade that had the biggest VIC-20 section I’d ever seen! Which in a very roundabout way brings me to the point that at this time, a lot of what you bought was solely down to judging a book / record / game (I don’t think anything else to buy existed then) by its cover.

On one of these trips, on a Friday afternoon towards the end of the VIC-20’s life when magazine coverage had all but dried up, I was completely seduced by a cops and robbers game that I can’t for the life of me remember the name of, but had some huge, impressive sprites on the back of its box that I just couldn’t resist but had no money to buy. And I’ve a horrible feeling it was full price… The following morning, with funds in place, I convinced my Dad to drive me into town, then drive around while I ran in to the shop and bought it. I’m not sure if I feel worse today for making him do that or wasting what was probably several weeks of pocket money on that button-mashing turd – you played the big on-screen robber on the run from the big on-screen cop and just waggled the joystick left and right as fast as you could until your hands hurt too much and he caught you. Game over.

But sometimes judging a game by its cover worked out fine, and there’s no greater example of this than Joe Blade. I don’t think there was a lot of life left in my favourite games shop (or the too-exotic-for-Bedford Boulevards shopping arcade) when 1987 came, but once again seeing those screenshots – on a budget title no less – meant must-buy.

Joe Blade was monochrome Spectrum graphics in all their colour clash-free glory – big, detailed black sprites and environments on garish yellow, purple, green, turquoise, etc. backgrounds that made complete sense providing you didn’t think about them too much! And the sprites were so big and detailed that you could easily have mistake the distinctly moustachioed Joe for Charles Bronson hoofing Germans all about the place, even at cassette box size!

Actually, they turned out not to be Germans but the minions of the evil mastermind Crax Bloodfinger, who’s kidnapped a load of world leaders that you need to rescue. But they did look enough like German soldiers to give it the distinction of being one of the first games banned there! Once you’re in his lair, you run about the flip-screen complex shooting up the non-SS goons, collecting stuff like ammo, keys to open cell doors, food and booze for health, disguises that give you temporary immunity and bombs that you need to prime in a letter-rearranging mini-game. Once you’ve sorted all the bombs and come across the six hostages, it’s time to escape from where you began.

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The gameplay was a lot like Dan Dare (see my post on that HERE) though probably a bit less frantic in terms of gunplay (especially as you didn’t get shot by the armed enemy but lost health on contact), but those cell keys were not easy to come by and that complex was complex, so a bit of mapping on some graph paper you’d nicked from your classroom stationary cupboard was essential! Whilst the box screenshots did do some justice to the wonderfully evocative (not World War 2) scenery and humorous touches such as the goon-like prisoners and sleeping hostages slumped on the floor with their arms casually behind their heads, what they couldn’t do justice to was the superbly smooth animation, and on my +2 at least you also had the benefit of some decent sound from the 128K version.

I don’t think I ever defused all the bombs or rescued all six world leaders, or even completed my map, but as was often the case with games at the time, it wasn’t about reaching the destination, but having a total blast over and over again without caring if you ever got there. Joe Blade is up there with the best of the original budget games ever released (the untouchable Feud excluded of course), and was more stylish and playable than most full priced games at the time.