I have to admit that I'm a huge fan of the Bombcasts - like you, no doubt. I hike to work with a grin as fast food restaurants are critiqued, anecdotes are exchanged regarding San Francisco's terrible amenities and even - shock - videogames are recounted by the fine folk who write for this very site. They are very entertaining folk and have the patter down to a rhythm which also compliments the very foot fall which propels me to my place of work on a typical rainy English morning. Mostly the sound waves which fill my ears are entertaining – until Giant Bomb’s very own Jeff Gerstmann started last week on some kind of unprovoked attack on the humble ZX Spectrum.
The gist of this rant caught me a little off guard; normally I would consider Jeff someone who loves videogames and videogame systems. They’re all great, right? They help us forget that one day we’ll probably leave this planet screaming in some kind of real-life fiery wreck probably brought on by too much Burnout Paradise “training”. Jeff has many systems – we’ve seen the large storage boxes to confirm this. Yet the anti-Spectrum tirade – which has continued in this week’s Bombcast – strikes me as rather unfair.
The blanket exclamation, for instance, that “all games on the ZX Spectrum are unplayable and shit” is the sort of comment you’d find on the most vitriolic of gaming forums. I learnt a long time ago to stay well away from any of that talk. I have owned many systems in the past and they’ve all been great in the ways they’ve been designed. I guess that my nostalgia of the ZX Spectrum is something I hold precious because it felt magical to go to the houses of schoolmates and have a cuppa while we waited for Trashman to load on the iconic 48k Spectrum (true story).
I was lucky enough to get my hands on a ZX Spectrum +2 – a later generation of Spectrum which not only had 48k emulation, but a built-in tape recorder and proper bloody keys too. No more having to jab at rubberised keys! Many a rainy day was spent with the +2 – I was always envious of a mate of mine who owned a +3, which had a disc drive instead of a tape recorder. Loading took seconds rather than minutes, though I think a lot of my pixel art training came from staring at loading screens to see how the artists would trick the eye with the limited 16 colour palette and attribute clash avoidance.
I have meandered down Memory Alley there. Allow me to back up and head back onto Unprovoked Attack Avenue… ah, that’s better. Now I know that Jeff is a Commodore 64 lover and I do remember there was a huge rivalry between the two systems on the school playground; maybe this is colouring his extreme opinion of the Spectrum. I need to address the commentary regarding the lack of games as well as – and this is also unfair and mentioned in this week’s Bombcast – the lack of any decent game music on the Spectrum too.
I know this blog post won’t be changing Jeff’s mind any time soon, but I do want this to be not only a voice of defence for something which gave me a lot of gaming memories and pleasure over my early formative teenage – and gaming – years, but also I want to highlight some bloody good games for the Spectrum which you really need to check out if you get the chance. It saddens me that some people who want to delve into emulation may be put off by Angry Jeff’s Angry Opinion. Please don’t be put off. Although many of these games are available on other systems, I appreciated them on the Spectrum – and the Spectrum version was just as playable as any other version.
I remember getting this for my birthday as my Dad didn’t really take me out to do fun stuff much; I think maybe my Mum somehow blackmailed him to take me on the bus to the game store and to pick it up. I think a very positive Your Sinclair review also pushed me in the right direction. Plus I bloody love Egyptian pyramids, mummies – all the good stuff.
Total Eclipse used a technology by Incentive Software called Freescape – essentially early 3D first seen in Driller. Monochromatic shaded polygons were low in detail, but gave my imagination an excuse to fill in the gaps. The game takes place in Egypt at the turn of the last century – you start the game outside a huge pyramid with a biplane parked up and an ominous slow meeting of sun and moon in the sky. You had a few hours to enter the pyramid and stop whatever was inside it from destroying the planet through a destructive total eclipse – hence the game’s name.
The pyramid itself was full of traps, mummies, secret rooms and treasure – also unusually was the fact the game couldn’t be easily mapped on paper due to the 3D nature of the pyramid itself. Mapping is a lost art-form in gaming; I used to love drawing maps on graph paper of other videogames. Heck, it kept me off the streets. Total Eclipse was a brutal game – the pyramid was silent exepct for your beating heart and sudden starling events which only made that heart beat even faster. You also had to keep an eye on your heart rate – too many encounters meant you would have to wait to calm down using a keyboard prod to speed up time. Alas, the speeding up of time gave you a foreboding feeling that you were burning through those precious two hours to the planet’s destruction.
Jeff mentioned the lack of arcades in the UK in the days of the Spectrum – although not strictly true as there were arcades, but spread out vast distances. Arcade machines would also be accessible at my local swimming baths, though Ocean Software was responsible for many arcade conversions for a hungry audience. I do remember some of the beautiful box art from Mr. Bob Wakelin (You can actually buy art from his site) and one piece of artwork I loved was that on the Chase HQ box.
I think I was spurred into a purchase from – once more – another favourable Your Sinclair review. The loading screen was also a joy to examine as it recreated the super-sexy box art too – quite an achievement with the limited graphical capabilities on offer. I always thought that these limits encourage creativity. The version I had though – the +2 version – had some pretty impressive (for the time) digitised speech.
The whole game was a very impressive achievement for the Spectrum – a pretty accurate lo-fi recreation of the arcade machine, the game put you in the shoes of a cop team whose speciality was high speed pursuit of crims followed by a barrage of sideswipes and shunts as you tried to smash his car into submission. There was a lot to like about the game at the time – the handling was pretty special considering the limitations; I think this was my first “proper” driving game. It also had a lot of personality and heart too; there were likeable characters and some great presentation – I watched those CHASE HQ letters dance on the title screen for an unhealthy time, unwittingly soaking in much animation knowledge.
This was a particularly striking game which appeared quite early on in the Spectrum’s lifecycle. It was striking in that the game was presented in isometric 3D – already injecting a sense of depth and direction that early Spectrum games lacked – but also the art style was particularly beautiful in its monochromatic limits. Pixel art these days doesn’t even compare to what was being done in the past with such limitations.
In the game itself, you controlled Head and Heels, or Head or Heels. The character sprites of these guys were adorable – one being (if I remember correctly) a dog head with winged arms, the other guy was mostly feet. These visual traits lead to what could be done with them in gameplay – Head could glide distances with those crazy winged arms, while Heels could jump higher. The varied environments lent themselves to this, though I think I remember at some point in the game, you could both be combined together and get both those traits.
The killer feature of the game was the way you could swap between characters in their different locations – I often found myself getting stuck as Heels on one tricky puzzle, then swapping to Heads in another part of the world to attempt the puzzles there. Plus that chunky typeface? Beautiful.
Before Rare, there was Ultimate – Play The Game. These guys were around in the very early days of the ZX Spectrum, though gave us a lot of great videogames including Jetpac – a title which Jeff dissed, but turns out it’s not a crap game after all. Ultimate gave us some great titles – all of them oozing with personality and a specific look; you could just tell you were playing an Ultimate game; Knightlore, Sabre Wulf and Trans Am come to mind, but the game I truly loved was Atic Atac.
It’s a bit of a classic, this one. It also felt in its day that it was a game which was challenging you to get it done in three lives or be invoked with the shame of failure. Essentially the game took place in a large castle with dungeons and the Atic of the title. The aim of the game was to escape – you had to collect three pieces of the ACG key and assemble this in the Great Hall of the castle. Only then could you get out.
When you begin each game, you had the choice of three different characters – Wizard, Knight or Serf. This decision was important as each character allowed you to navigate the castle through different short-cuts. As well as picking up pieces of the key, you also needed to pick up objects which could be used to kill some of the monstrous bosses which roamed the dungeons; so a spanner could easily dispatch Frankenstein, a crucifix to get rid of Dracula, etc. All the while, you were reminded of your own mortality through one of the cutest health gauges in videogames – a delicious roast chicken which slowly turned into a skeleton and the loss of one of those three precious lives.
Atic Atac was a mapper’s game, although one which was tough to map due to those staircases which you used to traverse levels. More expert gamers simply memorised the map with their own favourite character. Me? Serf. There’s something appealing about walking though large barrels of booze.
I have particular fond memories of this game due to the appealing chunky sprites and the explosions of colour; set on a distance planetoid, you played a lone space dude who had to travel from left to right of the screen negotiating enemies with your collection of guns or rocket grenades. There was something immensely appealing about being able to destroy everything on screen with such a vast selection of multi-coloured sprites and explosive white noise.
Further on into the game, you were also offered an exo-suit armed to the teeth with more weapons to deal out more multi-coloured laser death to your intergalactic enemies. I think I vaguely remember grabbing this one time and being overtaken with emotions close to those you would expect to find with an illicit flick through your first pornographic magazine. It was bliss.
The game was coded by a chap called Raffaele Cecco – a bit of a developer rockstar of his day, as he also brought us such classics as Cybernoid 2 and Stormlord. All these games felt fun, though they were also complimented by a solid and appealing art style too. I really miss playing his games.
So there you go. The ZX Spectrum, ladies and gentlemen. It isn't the demonic electronic bastard that Jeff thinks it is. It hasn't raped any kittens as far as I can tell. It gave me a lot of joy and happy gaming memories and looking back at those YouTube videos above was a delicious tonic indeed. One more thing! Music on the ZX Spectrum is actually rather good -
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9b9XjxK2RJc – LED Storm