Discovering 4×4 Offroad Racing on ZX Spectrum

Discovering 4×4 Offroad Racing on ZX Spectrum

Very prominent screenshots from another system were something I became accustomed to when I had a VIC-20, but by the time I’d had a Spectrum +2 for a while I’d get a bit suspicious when what were clearly C64 screenshots were plastered all over the box. In the case of 4×4 Offroad Racing, you can kind of see why they did it though!

That said, back in the November 1988 issue of Computer & Video Games, their 47% review of that version ended with an update, saying that US Gold were unhappy with the C64 release, and the Spectrum and Amstrad versions would contain “vast improvements” when they eventually arrived.

Maybe they spent all their time on vast improvements on the Amstrad version, because let’s be clear, the only reason we’re here is the Spectrum version stinks! Sinclair User gave it 40% and Crash were slightly more impressed, awarding 42%. I think they were both generous to say the least, with their main concerns being loads of loading, and its attempts to mix some racing strategy with arcade racing falling flat and doing neither in any interesting way.

I do have that copy of C&VG, though my own recent history with this was simply coming across a very garish Spectrum screenshot on social media and being intrigued. And here we are! I’m not going to review it, but I would like to give you a commentary of my first (and last) impressions if you’ll allow!

After a decent loading screen, you’re straight into a very uninspiring list of the four “toughest, roughest” course locations and a helpful description of the terrain you can expect in brackets next to it. From what I can tell, that terrain is exactly the same regardless of the description, apart from either one or both colours you get on the screen (you read that right) changing…

1. Baja (Rough Desert). Yellow and red monochrome.
2. Death Valley (Desert). Same as rough desert but yellow and black.
3. Georgia (Mud & Hills). Same as rough desert and desert but green and black.
4. Michigan (Winter). Same as rough desert, desert and mud & hills but white and blue.

And everything in every course is genuinely those same two colours – car, road, background, obstacles, other racers…

After some more loading (and it won’t stop there) it’s time to choose your utility vehicle. There’s several, there’s lots of stats about each, and again, it’s all very uninspiring and won’t make the slightest difference to anything!

You are then a guy that looks like a darts player from the eighties wandering about outside some shops. He’s wearing some strange high-heeled shoes. You can walk into the Custom Shop to buy a bumper and something else I couldn’t work out the identity of. Then you can walk to the Auto Mart to buy extra fuel, springs and stuff like that. All of this is like a bad version of Ghostbusters. Eventually you work out that you then need to walk right to the right edge of the screen (rather than walk to your new car which is parked outside the shops) and press fire to race. This bit looks a bit like a bad Everyone’s a Wally game, and is utterly pointless. Even the next multi-load is more interesting!

Finally we’re at whatever race we chose ages ago. Winter is blue and white and is the only one you’ll have any recollection of choosing. Your car looks like it was programmed in BASIC.

Once you’re underway, you’ll notice there’s no car physics in evidence. Driving feels like moving a slider left and right. Which is precisely what you’re doing and there’s no attempt to disguise it. I think a lot of racing games move the track rather than the car, and this might be a very good example of why that trick exists!

The sound doesn’t help with any potential suspension of disbelief. You’ll find the garish monochrome graphics are perfectly complemented by completely monotone engine sounds regardless of the high or low gear you’re in. Every race is just never-ending drone!

In every course, the main obstacle is the cactus in the middle of the track every few seconds. If you hit the cactus you explode. That’s why you have three lives in a racing game in case you were wondering. You also get potholes or piles of stones or exploding blades of grass or something to avoid (like a rubbish Buggy Boy), and there’s more obstacles on the track than other racers.

There’s a lot of hills and valleys in this game. These are signified by a line on the road then the screen violently shifting, and most of the car disappearing off the top of bottom of the screen.

You also get a lot of rivers – and sometimes something slightly wider than a river – on your courses. Now, I was always impressed reading about the scale of some of the American rivers that the old pioneers used to struggle to cross on their way west, but some of these here are seemingly more ocean than river. Anyway, often when you drive through a river on any level you get stuck, and unless you’re prepared to slowly waggle the joystick left and right and up at the same time for several minutes (assuming there is a shore in sight which isn’t always the case), you’re better off just shutting down and loading the whole game again. Or just playing something else! And I’ve no idea how I worked that out or persevered in doing it once I did during my very short playtime!

The road sometimes forks like Out Run. I’m not sure if it means anything, but it’s a bit of variety I suppose. Similarly, but of more concern in a racing game, is whether or not your race position means anything. It was, admittedly, the last thing on my mind until I noticed it for the first time on the Ghostbusters-like screen you also get when something goes wrong. I’m also not sure what triggers that – your damage indicators are something else that seem meaningless most of the time. Anyway, whatever that most important problem is, now you’re here you can try and fix it (which seems possible by clicking random icons whether you bought the right gear in the Everyone’s a Wally stage or not).

Back to your race position, I didn’t notice it anywhere else, but as I said, like many things in this game I’m not sure it means anything anyway! The courses are so long and monotonous that you’re unlikely to ever get to the end of one, let alone worry about where you came. And all of the opponents are as non-descript and seemingly as uninterested as you are, so what does it matter which one comes first! It’s like those scenes in The Matrix with all the same people fighting each other. Everyone wins or no one wins or no one cares. Actually the only winner here is the cactus. Cacti. Steer clear!

On paper this isn’t a million miles away from Victory Run on PC-Engine. For a system not known for its great racers, this is a great racer. In fact, it’s a toss up between Victory Run and Pac-Land for my favourite game on the system. Anyway, if you like the sound of this and fancy a bit of spare part management in your racing, you’re far better off admiring a garish screenshot of Spectrum 4×4 on social media then going there instead!

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… Chuckie Egg – Amstrad CPC

My Life With… Chuckie Egg – Amstrad CPC

I always thought the Amstrad CPC 464 was an exotic-looking machine, with its splashes of green and red and blue around the keyboard, and its separate cursor keys and keypad, and, of course, its built-in cassette deck (or datacorder, as I think it was officially termed)! The fact that none of my school friends owned one also added to its exotic nature – my world involved arguing about Spectrums over Commodore 64’s, and whilst I knew all about it from poring over every issue of Computer & Video Games magazine through its whole lifespan, I think seeing one on the shelf in Boots and Dixons was my only experience of it in the wild during that time. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1990 – also the year that Amstrad stopped producing it – that I properly got my hands on one.

1990 was also the year I went to university. The University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, which had proximity to London going for it and not a lot else… Apart from a big Asda supermarket in the centre of town, it had pioneered the death of the high street years before even Bedford caught up! I think that year saw my sole contribution to Hatfield’s town centre economy in my whole time there – a Gun cassette single from a tiny independent record shop that I can’t remember the name of; I can remember it was on a wet and miserable Wednesday afternoon, and the Gun cassette single was Shame on You, with a live version of Better Days on the B-Side.

There really wasn’t a lot to do outside of the university – which was hardly a cultural mecca in its own right – until a big A1 motorway-spanning shopping centre and leisure complex, The Galleria, opened there in my last year, after four years of being teased by building work. And I think that had an HMV where I did contribute far more to the local economy than I should have given my financial situation then!

In stark contrast to the person in the last sentence who, within just a few months, would be singing with his still-to-be-formed band at the legendary Marquee club in London, back in the autumn of 1990 I was hardly the social butterfly, and most of my “socialising” at the start of my university life was a bit forced as a result of various fresher’s week attractions. A short-lived participation in the role-playing club involved coming up with a Nazi dominatrix in a slingshot bikini as a character for some sci-fi fantasy game I’d decided to join in with, though I don’t remember ever actually playing it; and some kind of horror film club that gathered in a lecture room every Tuesday night to watch Young Frankenstein and other such classics on VHS. There were also single visits to a shooting club in some cool old World War 2 era military huts and a paintball club too. Rock and roll!

Anyway, all of those were history within a couple of months, during which time I’d learnt that someone I knew was living in a hall of residence just around the corner from me… I’d been to school with Scott since the age of nine, but apart from sharing the same birthday, we’d had little in common until we’d both started going out with two best friends from the year below us in sixth form, just before starting university. Through them, we eventually discovered we were not only at the same university, though he was studying at a different campus, but we were living literally 200 metres apart. After that we started sharing lifts to and from home which wasn’t that far away and hanging out in the evenings; and then I fairly quickly ended up becoming lifelong friends with the little group attached to him and his roommate, who owned an Amstrad CPC!

From around November 1990, the five of us spent every night together, either sat eating chips (having run the gauntlet into a nearby estate not known for their tolerance of students to the fish and chip shop) and watching videos in their room; or heading down the hill and through the main campus to the big student union bar; or gadding around the bounteous number of pubs in St Albans or Hertford in Scott’s Ford Escort. And by “gadding around” I mean being involved in the scariest and most insane driving I’ve ever experienced that didn’t involve one of the three life-threatening crashes I’ve been involved in since! Overtaking a car which was already overtaking another car around a series of blind bends on a national speed limit single carriageway is a particular highlight that immediately springs to mind! Anyway, whatever we were up to, there was always time to take turns sat at the big laminated wooden desk that separated their two beds for a game on the Amstrad beforehand. And there was literally one game! And that, of course, was Chuckie Egg…

I think I first came across Chuckie Egg on one of two BBC B computers at my middle school around 1984. One of them was kept in a repurposed store cupboard in a completely unrelated classroom, and I remember being in a crowd at the door one lunchtime watching someone play something that reminded me of one of the few arcade games I knew at the time, Bagman, that I would later learn was Chuckie Egg. That said, I’d also learn that it was first and foremost a Spectrum game, and is a great example of the eighties bedroom coding industry in the UK, where a 16-year old Nigel Alderton took his half-finished Spectrum game to A&F Software who snapped it up and started developing a BBC version in parallel. Those versions got released in 1983, at the unusual price on the Spectrum at least of £6.90, although in retrospect I think Decathlon was advertised at that too (more on that here) so maybe not so unusual. Anyway, it then got ported everywhere else, including the Amstrad CPC, a couple of years later, and would go on to sell over a million copies. The Amstrad version is most likely a port of the BBC rather than Spectrum version though because they both share more “realistic” physics where you can leap about a bit more freely and dangerously – I think the arc of the jump is a bit different and maybe slightly quicker on the BBC / CPC which makes it a little harder, though the grating running sound of the Spectrum version probably equalises things!

Chuckie Egg is the classic arcade platforme premise. Your little guy, Hen-House Harry, sets out on a screen with a load of eggs to collect against the clock, a load of corn he can also collect to slow the clock and get a few extra points before it gets eaten, and some ducklings that look more like ostriches chasing you around platforms, ladders and lifts. This all goes under the gaze of mother duck, trapped in a golden cage at the top of eight increasingly fiendish screens, but if you conquer those then she’s out, and unlike her little fixed-path duck-ostriches who’ve now disappeared, she can chase you anywhere on the screen. Go round all the screens again and she’s back, the duck-ostriches are back, and you’ve got no chance!

Apparently there are forty levels all together, and if you get through those I believe you go back to effective level thirty-three and loop again. But that’s not something I’ll ever need to worry about! The countdown timer is reasonably generous, and I don’t really recall ever running out of time before I’d lost all of my lives in other ways! Whilst the corn can be used for some bonus time and score, it’s maybe more useful as a distraction for the baddies who will stop and eat it like Road Runner would if they come across any! As well as the duck-ostriches and the mother duck(er), if you fall through one of the gaps at the bottom of the screen you’re losing one of your five lives. Same if you don’t get off a lift before it gets to the top, or get a bit too close to the duck in the cage while its in there. Falling from a height isn’t so much of a concern as bouncing off of one of the platforms in an unpredictable direction, or missing (or overshooting) one of the lifts, which is where you seem to die the most, but there’s some cool tricks you can pull off through seeming leaps of faith in the general direction of a ladder that you can seamlessly catch the bottom of and start climbing if you’ve timed it just right! Actually, getting on a ladder is pretty easy wherever you hit it, but getting off requires you to either jump or be perfectly positioned (Donkey Kong style) and can also be the cause of some frustrating deaths.

I don’t like to use the word frustrating here though. This game is massively playable and hugely addictive once you get into the zone of how it wants you to play. Despite it being harder for me to replicate my original and most fondly remembered experience of playing now – not having the hardware – the Amstrad version I used to play in two, three or four player mode (taking turns for scores, of course!) is still the version I’d rather play over the Spectrum’s. It looks very much of its time, with simplistic single-colour sprites and level features on a black background, just like the Spectrum version, but everything is a bit chunkier and seems a bit more well-defined here; mother duck is a bit bigger and more intimidating too! There’s not a lot going on in the sound department – just some very basic (though not annoying like the Spectrum!) running and jumping stuff, and a very basic (though not annoying like the Spectrum!) chip tune when you die. But all of that is all it needs to do when it’s such a masterclass in gameplay on either that strange, exotic machine or my beloved Spectrum.

If you look really hard you’ll find a sequel that appeared in 1985 on the usual 8-bit suspects, as well as the Atari ST (yay) and Amiga (boo). By this time, Nigel Alderton was working for Ocean and the Mr-Do! style sequel that had been hinted at previously never materialised, but A&F attempted to cash-in on the success of the original undeterred with Chuckie Egg 2. This time Hen-House Harry is collecting stuff in a 120-screen factory, like a big Jet Set Willy, but nowhere near in that game’s league, and nowhere near as playable or addictive as its predecessor.

The sequel never dared show its face in the laminated furniture, laminated carpet tiled grubby hall of residence room that five 18-year old nerdy students effectively called home for that first year at university. Nor did any other game for that matter, making Chuckie Egg on the Amstrad CPC not only one of my favourite games ever, but also still the only game I’ve ever played on that platform almost exactly thirty years later (and thirty six years after the machine first appeared) at the time of writing.

I’m going to leave you with one more car related story from then though. One of the guys in our circle, Ian, lived in one of the university’s other halls of residence, Roehyde, which was also known as Rawhide for it’s wild west reputation. Such was my fear of this reputation that the only time I ever ventured into its prefabricated, temporary classroom-styled walls was to roll one of four wheels from Ian’s Mini down to his bedroom door in the dead of night so we could pile them up there, knock on his door and run away! Yes, that’s what happened when you decided you were staying in to work on an assignment rather than play Chuckie Egg with the Hatfield Hard Men!!! And the car? It was safely sitting wheel-less in the middle of a roundabout half a mile away where we’d rolled it to, without keys or access to the handbrake! Great days…

Sacrilege!!! The Perils of Willy On ZX Spectrum!

Sacrilege!!! The Perils of Willy On ZX Spectrum!

Yes, you read that right. What was once hallowed ground for the VIC-20 owner is here and now on the Spectrum…

And once I was over not having our own exclusive Manic Miner / Jet Set Willy game anymore, I was totally thrilled with Perils of Willy finally being ported to the ZX Spectrum! It’s perfect and it’s available now!

This was my favourite VIC-20 game, and currently sits at number 17 in my top games of all time list. It’s all about getting Miner Willy home after a night out by collecting musical notes through a variety of platforming locales, but as is hopefully increasingly the case, you can read my full thoughts on that here!

The Perils of Willy Spectrum recreation was lovingly crafted by Allan Turvey, and as far as I can tell so far (because after several hours of play I can still only get through about a quarter of the 32 brutal screens) it’s a direct port apart from the screen dimensions being necessarily shifted a bit. Some might say the background music is slightly more bearable too!

It genuinely feels as good now as it did in 1984, meaning a tough as nails lesson in hardcore platforming that I can’t stop playing all over again!

You can download it either free or for a donation of your choice here.

Just never forget the VIC-20 had it first!

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… 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.

My Life With… Shockway Rider – ZX Spectrum 

My Life With… Shockway Rider – ZX Spectrum 

1987 was the golden age of graphics on the Spectrum. And the 6-PAK Volume 2 compilation included some prime examples, featuring nazi-Gauntlet variant Into the Eagle’s Nest, a great shooter called Light Force, an average flight sim called ACE, the classic International Karate, better-than-Arkanoid Batty, and the stunning Shockway Rider. 

I got 6-PAK Volume 2 for Christmas that year. Also memorable for seeing my beloved Ghostbusters for the first time when it premiered on ITV on Boxing Day! And my Grandma buying me Abigail by King Diamond. I’ve no idea how she knew I wanted it, and much less what the shop assistant must have thought when a 62-year old Irish lady turned up at the counter to buy it… or more likely ask for it! But it was something that I immediately fell in love with, and I reckon I’ve listened to at least once per month for the last thirty years, the last time being on my flight to California just a couple of weeks ago.

I’d discovered King Diamond in a friend’s copy of Kerrang – a pull out poster of him in full make-up holding a burning upside down cross; that got unfolded in religious education right in the face of the most Catholic of our Catholic school teachers! He got kicked out of the class, the poster got confiscated, and my world moved forward… I can distinctly remember my first listen of Abigail, as soon as we got home from my Grandma’s house on Christmas Day evening. Standing at the record player in a pair of big seventies can headphones (because the lead wouldn’t reach a chair), marvelling at the spine-chilling tale unfolding through every track. It’s a masterpiece, and there’s no finer (or gloriously terrifying) opener to any album ever! I know most of you will never have heard of this, which I pity you for, but just give the opening 40 seconds a go! 

But back to Shockway Rider… The name came from a 70’s sci-fi novel, but to me the premise was more than a bit Judge Dredd – the inlay even talked about cruising the triple-speed walkways that circled the “Megacitys of the 21st Century.” (I quote to avoid any responsibility for bad punctuation). Anyway, you’re part of the Shockway Riders, an athletic, aggressive and arrogant street gang, on the cruise to do a full circle of the moving walkway that did indeed move at three speeds, and contained ramps, speed traps, cops, vigilantes and other gangs trying to thwart your “ultimate ambition” to go all the way around… Yes, the story wasn’t its strong point! 

What was its strong point was how bold and vibrant it looked, with big, detailed, varied sprites on a bright yellow background. Once you’d jumped off the pavement onto the walkway, the challenge soon mounted as you swapped lanes to collect stuff to chuck at your oncoming enemies, avoiding the obstacles and other pedestrians, who had a habit of morphing into enemies without warning! Actually, swapping lanes was probably the biggest challenge – jump timing wasn’t exactly forgiving. That was slightly compensated by the death animation though – once you’d inexplicably exploded, all that was left was your head on the conveyor belt you died on. 

There wasn’t a massive amount of progression – I think the backgrounds changed and the obstacles changed as you went from block to block – but it stayed true to its simple concept and that continues to be its strength. 

To finish on what I didn’t realise would be a related topic before I started writing this, as well as a list of top several hundred games, I have a list of top ten albums, where King Diamond’s Abigail will forever reside…

1. The Damned – Phantasmagoria

2. The Afghan Whigs – Gentlemen

3. The Doors – In Concert

4. King Diamond – Abigail

5. Sugar – Copper Blue

6. Duran Duran – Arena

7. Satyricon – Age of Nero

8. Slayer – Reign in Blood

9. Swervedriver – Raise

10. The Mission – Children

My Life With… Horace Goes Skiing – ZX Spectrum 

My Life With… Horace Goes Skiing – ZX Spectrum 

In April 1983, Home Computing Weekly awarded this 100% for graphics. The first time I laid eyes on it, I probably concurred – another of those moments when you realise that your machine is no longer at the cutting edge; actually, I seem to remember quite a few of those moments with my VIC-20!

Horace Goes Skiing was the first game I ever played on a Spectrum. It came out in 1982 but April 1983 was probably about the time I played it, just after my best friend (and future best man) Paul’s eleventh birthday. And just as my favourite band of the day, Spanish Ballet, hit number one and the big time with True. 

There were some really striking things about the Spectrum. It was tiny compared to VIC. You could attach any cassette player to it. And it made the strangest digitised screeching sounds you’d ever heard when you loaded a game! Little did I know that I’d soon know every nuance of those loading sounds as intimately as I’d know the sax solo in True!

After a particularly garish loading screen, perfectly complementing the garish sounds coming out of the speaker, you’ve got to get Horace across the road to the ski shop. This is a particularly brutal, but great looking take on Frogger. You start at the top of the screen with some money in your purse for ski hire. The shop is at the bottom, and in between are some fantastically detailed lorries, cars and motorbikes, moving unpredictably in both directions at a serious pace. Get hit and an ambulance takes you back to the start, for a price. If you’re left without cash for ski hire, you charge around the road to be rewarded for your recklessness! Get across with enough money and it’s time to hit the slopes. 

I’ve played a ton of skiing games in my time, and this controls as well as any I’ve played. Despite reverting to slightly less impressive graphics for this stage – in fact, VIC could have managed these – you really felt like you were on snow. Hitting every gate was tough, especially when they were placed right behind a tree, but most of the fun was to be found on the jumps. These weren’t especially useful, but again felt so right. Apart from the bizarre jumping sound, but that sort of out of place noise was something else I’d eventually learn to love on the Spectrum! Get to the bottom and you were rewarded with doing it all again. Which was just fine! 

I’m not so sure about the 100% graphics score any more. It was up there for a while with games like Alcatraz Harry and that awful Artic football game, but then came Daley Thompson… which is a tale for another time! Horace Goes Skiing was simple, and by no means the best Spectrum game ever, but it was a classic and remains so to this day. 

My Life With… Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future – ZX Spectrum

Never regret something that made you smile… I’m not sure the free Space Spinner on issue one of the relaunched Eagle comic on the 27th March 1982 made me smile enough not to regret tearing lumps out of the cover to get the sellotape off! 

I’d read a few old annuals that had belonged to my Dad, but this was the start of my real love for Eagle that would last several years until peer pressure would see me switch to 2000AD. It started out pretty exotic to someone who’d previously read TV Comic, Whizzer & Chips and Beano – it was full of photo stories! Yes, like girls’ comics had! But they didn’t have Sgt. Streetwise or Doomlord, the alien in a crappy rubber mask and an outfit borrowed from Liberace’s wardrobe. And, of course, Dan Dare, who thankfully kicked off in a more traditional comic strip format, with Return of the Mekon. This was the guy I knew from my Dad’s old stuff, though actually the 1982 version was his great, great grandson from 200 years in the future. 

The game appeared four years later. The Mekon’s returned again, this time threatening to destroy the Earth with a hollowed out asteroid. Once Dan arrives on it, you’ve got two hours to explore the subterranean structures to find five bits of a self destruct mechanism, one on each level. Lose all your energy and you’re put away for ten minutes. This all equates to running about with your laser gun, exploring and shooting Treens. 

Its great fun, and is a dream come true for any Eagle fan – with captions aiding the story, it feels like the comic come to life. But what really makes it come to life is how it looks; this game was utterly goundbreaking as far as the Spectrum was concerned. Absolutely loads of colour – probably more than any other Spectrum game at the time – and not a not a hint of clashing. The character animation is also superb, and everything runs super fast and smoothly. The whole package was a real landmark in Spectrum gaming, to the point that loading it the first time gave you that same sense of awe you’d get moving up to the next generation of machines. 

I don’t think I ever found all five pieces, but for the rest of my time with the Spectrum it remained close to hand (in one of those dreadful rotating tape holders), long after the comic was a distant memory, lost to Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper and Nemesis the Warlock, whose spin-off games never quite had the same impact, though we’ll come back to those later. The same is true of Dan Dare II: Mekon’s Revenge and Dan Dare III: The Escape, despite the latter probably being the final word in colourful Spectrum games! 

See you next time with something from my Atari ST days.