My Life With… Milk Race (ZX Spectrum)

My Life With… Milk Race (ZX Spectrum)

Nothing says 1987 like the Milk Race. Except maybe Lethal Weapon. And Robocop. And U2. And big storms in the south of England that meant we spent an afternoon in the school sports hall watching Clash of the Titans instead of lessons. But anyway, apart from those, round-Britain pro-am cycling extravaganza the Milk Race was a big deal! To put it into context, Tour de France was a song by Kraftwerk, but everyone knew the Milk Race – in no small part, simply due to it being televised, and at the time there wasn’t a huge amount of early evening viewing choice. Just like snooker in its BBC Two 18.5 million viewer heyday a couple of years earlier.

However, unlike snooker, the Milk Race can be traced all the way back to 1945, and the Victory Cycling Marathon from Brighton to Glasgow. It would soon attract the News of the World newspaper as a sponsor, then the Sporting Record, then the Daily Express until they decided to put their money into a new sport called Formula 1 motor-racing instead. In 1954, Quaker Oats got in on the act until their breakfast bowl bedfellows the Milk Marketing Board took over in 1958, and that partnership would go on for another 35 years until 1993, when they got wound up because of pesky European monopoly laws. And as that takes us well beyond our start date of 1987, I think this completely unplanned history of the Milk Race, its politics and its sponsors can come to a close! Except to say that nowadays you’d be right to think its now called the Tour of Britain.

Despite all of its relative popularity, and despite the £1.99 budget price tag, I still wonder how confident Mastertronic were when they signed off on a niche game about a niche sport. But I suppose that once it was on the shelves the inlay looked pretty cool, the screenshots suitably conveyed its likeness to what you could see on telly, and the blurb did its best! “In May cycling nations from all over the world send their best competitors to England for the 1000 mile trek…” And there wasn’t much more you could ask for when you were staring at cassette boxes in your local games emporium, desperate to spend your pocket money.

The most fun you’ll have is in the first stage (which is lucky because unless you get serious it’s where you’ll spend all your time) where you’ve got forty or so riders in front of you and you get a real sense of being in the pack. It’s also much harder to position yourself to pick up milk from either side of the road, which is how you’re going to keep your energy bar topped up enough to manage all those hills and keep up a decent enough speed to make your way fowards.

Stay near one edge or the other and you should be able to pick up milk regularly enough, so just  keep an eye on your gears and speed when you’re going uphill and energy won’t be too much of a problem for most of the race. 

After a couple of stages you should be somewhere near the lead and you just need to stay there or thereabouts, which shouldn’t be too much of a problem for a while. Actually the only problem you’ll now have is the cars that don’t just drive by you, but might decide to swerve up and down the whole width of the road – this is the only way you’re not going to stay in the lead for now…

That’s until you get to stage 12 of 13 because for some reason the Milk Race has apparently run out of milk! And where the other riders couldn’t steal it away from you fast enough in the early stages, they couldn’t care less about the lack of it now and will sail past you as you panic about conserving energy, and you watch that top three position you’ve now held through most of the race dwindle away. And that’s not the only thing to be in a panic about, because there’s no way you’re completing a time trial with enough energy left to finish the next stage though the mountainous region that is apparently Chelmsford to Milton Keynes! What a treat to have Milton Keynes featured so prominently in a game in 1987 though…

This penultimate stage is all about luck. The gradients you’re going up and (sometimes) down throughout the game seem to be randomly generated. If you’re lucky here you’ll avoid any really nasty slopes, avoid the ridiculous swerving cars, and have enough after the time trial to trundle to the finish in the top few.

The milk’s still off the menu in the final stage around the streets of the capital, but this is short and you’re unlikely to be in first place at the start, so you’re just going flat out to get back in front before you get to the finish. Again, assuming the gradient gods allow!

Then you have one of the most anticlimactic endings to a game ever. Mainly because it’s not the end – after your 1000 mile trek, win, lose or draw, if you get there it’s just a Race Over message and you’re starting stage one again!

I always thought the game captured England (if not central London specifically in the last stage) in 1987 perfectly, with its monochrome hills, housing estates, shops and churches scrolling pretty smoothly by in the background at a decent lick, and brightly coloured spectators right in the foreground flying by slightly less smoothly. The completely monochrome cyclists, while all looking the same, move along equally well, with a nice sense of speed coming from the simple animations in the detailed wheel and pedal movements. Just don’t think too hard about the size of the bottles of milk at the side of the road!

The user interface at the top gives you a clear view of your all-important energy and the current gradient so you don’t need to take your eyes off the road, then look a bit harder and you’ve got speed, gears and position, and bizzarely a score, though given the ending I guess that explains why! Whilst there’s not much sound going on during the race stages themselves, there is one of the better examples of Spectrum chip-tunes on the between-stage map!

I remember Crash magazine being down on this game. Too simple, too tedious, and didn’t justify the price tag. (Yes, that’s the £1.99 price tag)! But I’ve always been a cycling fan, Milk Race or not, and there’d never been anything like it before so I’m glad I ignored them a took a punt. Or pint maybe.

And yes, I know. Snooker, India, 19th Century…

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