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. Satyricon – Age of Nero

7. Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Welcome to the Pleasuredome

8. Slayer – Reign in Blood

9. The Mission – Children

10. Klimt 1918 – Just in Case We’ll Never Meet Again

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. 

My Life With… Kung-Fu Master

My Life With… Kung-Fu Master

Like many others that didn’t live in a seaside resort, my experience of the golden age of video game arcades was limited to a week in the summer and when the fair came to town. The closest we had was the Bunyan Centre – a big sports centre a few hundred metres from home where I’d spent a few years becoming something of a kung-fu master myself every Saturday lunchtime. My brother and me were there on Monday nights too for trampolining for a while; we’d have to leave for it just after Inspector Gadget. I think five-a-side football was Wednesday night. Probably after Danger Mouse. Then if you were lucky there was a roller disco once a month while that was the coolest thing in the world. And afternoon multi-sport sessions in school holidays, which is where another Kung-Fu Master comes in. 

These sessions were pretty much Lord of the Flies – kids running riot around the centre, whacking squash balls up through the fan at the top of the court, trying to clean and jerk the biggest thing you could find in the weight room and so on. And overlooking the main hall was a balcony area with a couple of vending machines (one of which was the only place in town to buy Dr Pepper) and three regularly rotated arcade machines. 

I reckon Kung-Fu Master appeared there around 1985. An iconic (and possibly the first) horizontally scrolling beat ’em up where you’re making your way against the clock and waves of goons to a boss by the stairs to the next of five floors. I remember watching older kids playing it and getting a few floors up, but this is one of those games I absolutely loved without being very good at it and never getting beyond the second floor. 

It’s not a visual feast, but it drips martial arts movie atmosphere, being very inspired by the Bruce Lee movie Game of Death. You’ve got a punch and kick button, then left, right, crouch and jump on the joystick; you could also waggle it to free yourself from an enemy grip. You got more points for punching than kicking, but a jump kick was worth more. And the number of points depended on the type of enemy, whether regular thugs, tougher ones, knife throwers or oddball “bonus” enemies like moths and vases! Then you had the bosses for more points – I can only really talk about the one with sticks on the first floor and not getting beyond the one with boomerangs on the next, but they get more exotic with a giant, a black magician and Mr X. I think generally if you could back the first ones up to the stairs you just had to punch and kick a lot to beat them. 

This game soon got frantic with enemies ganging-up on both sides, but much like Ghosts n’ Goblins, the difficulty never made it frustrating to me to play. I was more than happy putting 10p after 10p in and spending a couple of minutes on the first floor, then watching the older kids get a bit further until it was my turn again. 

That was until the Spectrum version appeared in 1986! I’m generally the world’s most forgiving when it comes to arcade ports – to me every Out Run and Operation Wolf was arcade perfect because it was in my house and that was unbelievable at the time! But this one was truly a shocker that even my misplaced generosity couldn’t stretch to approval of. It’s a heartbreaking realisation when you’re twelve or thirteen to realise that the pocket money you’d been saving up to buy a game you thought you loved had been wasted. The graphics were terrible, the colour clash made worse by the use of bizarre colours, it didn’t scroll properly and no matter how fast you mashed the joystick button, the attacks just moved in their own time – which was about half the speed they needed to be to give you a chance in hell – and even if you landed one you were very lucky if the game realised it. I’d love to love this game on the Spectrum and I even played it again only yesterday to try and convince myself I’d got it wrong, but I’m afraid I hadn’t. 


Until next time… but before I sign off, here’s that other kung-fu master I mentioned earlier, circa 1980!

My Life With… Ghosts ‘n Goblins – ZX Spectrum

It’s high summer 1987, and after a week away from your beloved Spectrum, you’re faced with the choice of which new game you play first – Ghosts ‘n Goblins or Southern Belle (see previous post). Only ever going to be one winner, especially when you’ve spent the last couple of years reading about a stunning looking arcade game where you fight your way through a graveyard to rescue a princess from The Great Demon Lord himself! 

By this point, I was into Slayer and I’d seen The Omen, An American Werewolf in London and Poltergeist, and had a good idea of where my cultural bread was going to be buttered for the rest of my life, so was always going to be attracted to something like this. Released by Elite on home computers in 1986, this devilish platformer sees your knight in monochrome armour going from the most iconic graveyard ever to a forest, a ghost town then various bits of a castle, shooting various types of pick-up-able weapons at zombies, bats, crows, skeletons, Satan and some exotic looking demons. 

In reality though, you’re jumping over gravestones and shooting skeletons and zombies for a few seconds before losing your armour and running about in your pants for a bit before dying and restarting. I think at the height of my expertise I got to the first boss, a winged demon that bounced around at you. Funny thing is I never thought about it being that difficult – which retrospectively I now know it to be notoriously so in the history of gaming! I was more than happy in that graveyard, and never even considered there being more to the game than this. (Which ironically there wasn’t much more of on the Spectrum). Just die and restart without too much frustration, which is one of the many qualities that makes this a classic of the eighties on any platform and one of the best games ever. 

The Spectrum version looked just like the arcade, minus the colour. That’s not to say it wasn’t colourful – tons of colour clash all over the place and because Arthur took on the colour of the background, you often found yourself lost in it! Unfortunately the sound didn’t translate so well, but met the usual low expectations. It played great though, and I can still feel the stiffness of the Atari joystick as it got wrenched from left to right and back again to chuck swords at enemies coming from all sides. An absolute classic, until your best friend got it on C64… Now that graveyard really is iconic!

See you next time. 

Can You Name Your Top 50 Games?

Can You Name Your Top 50 Games?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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