1985 - Crisis and recovery
The unveiling of the Spectrum Plus the previous year came too late for most retailers, who had already stocked up on the original model. The 1984 Christmas period was a poor one for computer sales, so Sinclair kicked off the New Year by reducing the price of its new computer to £125 in an effort to claw back some lost ground.
This had a crippling effect on sales of the old Spectrum. Whereas before the rubber-keyed model at least held a price advantage over the Plus, it now had nothing in its favour. The ensuing sales stagnation, the modest success of the QL, and the cost of the C5 electric car project conspired to plunge Sinclair into a financial crisis.
By the summer, Sir Clive had tried and failed to persuade Robert Maxwell to bail out the company, so he put plan B into action: to sell £10m of new Spectrums to electrical retailer Dixons. The deal turned out to be a double-edged sword, however, thanks to a clause in the contract that forbade Sinclair from releasing a new computer in the UK for another six months. This thwarted plans to introduce the Spectrum 128k, already developed at the expense of Spanish distributor Investronica.
Copies, tie-ins and triumphs
In the games market, the trend was toward more commercialisation and less imagination. Smaller companies continued to disappear, while the larger software houses consolidated their position with a slew of TV and movie tie-ins. The emphasis was shifting away from inventive experimentation towards formulaic mimicry. The amateurish spirit of the industry's early years was coming to an end.
Nevertheless, programming skills continued to advance and 1985 saw some of the most technically accomplished games yet. Ultimate's Underwurlde and Knight Lore, released at the end of 1984, did not reach most shops until the beginning of the New Year, and Ultimate cashed-in on the latter's success with a pair of aesthetically-similar titles: Alien 8 and Nightshade.
Other labels followed Ultimate’s lead with isometric 3D games of their own, demonstrating the growing trend towards self-copying. A glaring example of this habit was the beat 'em up genre. Towards the end of the year, Melbourne House launched Way of the Exploding Fist after an extensive advertising campaign. Within months it had been joined by Imagine’s Yie Ar Kung Fu, US Gold’s Bruce Lee and a gruelling succession of inferior titles, all trading off the back of WOTEF's success.
Kicking off a year of tie-ins was Activision's Ghostbusters. Although it was widely disparaged, it proved hugely successful and by the end of the year, Activision was claiming it as the best-selling game of all-time. This was never actually the case, but more than ever it proved that a title could generate enormous sales through brand association alone.
The Ocean tie-in factory churned out The Neverending Story, Roland's Rat Race, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Rambo and V, which ranged from the truly wretched (Roland) to the strikingly original (Frankie). The Manchester-based label fared well with a pair of sports titles: Jon Ritman’s Matchday, which became the benchmark for Spectrum football games, and the acclaimed World Series Baseball, released under the newly-acquired Imagine label. Elite, the other leading tie-in specialist, produced some splendid sports games of its own, like Frank Bruno's Boxing and Grand National.
Improvements in graphics breathed new life into the shoot 'em up. Incentive's Moon Cresta was the best of the coin-op conversions, Firebird’s Buggy Blast and Highway Encounter by Costa Panayi of Android fame the most dazzling originals.
Games set beyond planet Earth never looked better. Pete Cook’s futuristic 3D shooter Tau Ceti was slick and playable, as was Starion from Melbourne House, which filled a gap before the inevitable arrival of BBC Micro favourite Elite late in the year. Although it made its name on Acorn’s flagship micro, it was the Spectrum that brought Elite to the masses and cemented its place as a gaming masterpiece.
Platform games still found a following, even if the genre was on the wane. Follow-ups Jet Set Willy 2, Chuckie Egg 2 and Monty on the Run maintained their predecessors’ high standards, although the bonkers Dynamite Dan and the toilsome Technician Ted were better still. More elaborate platformers that included exploration and problem-solving elements proved increasingly popular, such as the dazzling Nodes of Yesod by Odin, Bubble Bus's colourful Starquake, and Virgin’s Cauldron, a tricksy platform-shooter hybrid.
This evolution of action games into arcade adventures offered a richer experience to gamers tiring of simple jumping and collecting duties. Among the best of this ilk were Mikrogen's Wally Week series, Gargoyle's Dun Darach, Durell’s sneak-and-kick classic Saboteur, and isometric puzzler Fairlight.
Another of this genre was Gift from the Gods, released under the Ocean label. Programming team Denton Designs, which was comprised of ex-Imagine employees, used elements from Bandersnatch, one of the defunct company’s never-to-be-realised ‘mega games’, in its first title. Gift from the Gods impressed on quality but disappointed on price: an eye-watering £9.95.
Despite the appetite for faster and flashier visuals, mentally-stimulating games remained well served. Shadowfire, another Denton Designs creation, released this time by Beyond, was a polished hybrid of strategy and adventure that used an innovative icon-driven interface. Mikrogen’s Witch's Cauldron was a whimsical adventure with animated graphics that responded to text instructions. CCS released a pair of superb wargames by RT Smith in Arnhem and Desert Rats, while Mike Singleton's Doomdark's Revenge proved even better than its prequel, Lords of Midnight.
A pair of novel management games livened up one of the oldest home computer genres. Chris Sievey’s The Biz let you start your own band and guide it to the top of the charts, and Software Star by Football Manager creator Kevin Toms put you in charge of a computer games company.
GAMES OF 1985
Gremlins (Adventure International)
Alien (Argus Press)
Doomdark’s Revenge (Beyond)
Tau Ceti (CRL)
Fairlight (The Edge)
I, Of The Mask (Electric Dreams)
Frank Bruno’s Boxing (Elite)
Dun Darach (Gargoyle)
Monty Is Innocent (Gremlin)
Monty on the Run (Gremlin)
Technician Ted (Hewson)
Emerald Isle (Level 9)
Finders Keepers (Mastertronic)
Way of Exploding Fist (Melbourne)
Everyone’s a Wally (Mikrogen)
Skool Daze (Microsphere)
Back to Skool (Microsphere)
Dynamite Dan (Mirrorsoft)
Frankie Goes to Hollywood (Ocean)
Match Day (Ocean)
Nodes of Yesod (Odin)
Alien 8 (Ultimate)
FILMS OF 1985
Back to the Future
The Breakfast Club
The Color Purple
Desperately Seeking Susan
The Emerald Forest
Kiss of the Spider Woman
Out of Africa
Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
Rambo: First Blood, Part II
A Room With a View
St Elmo's Fire
SINGLES OF 1985
Last Christmas - Wham!
I Want To Know Love Is - Foreigner
Love And Pride - King
You Spin Me Round - Dead Or Alive
Easy Lover - Phil Collins
Pleasuredome - Frankie
Rule The World - Tears For Fears
Move Closer - Phyllis Nelson
19 - Paul Hardcastle
Crazy For You - Madonna
Frankie - Sister Sledge
There Must Be An Angel- Eurythmics
Into The Groove - Madonna
I Got You Babe - UB40
Dancing in the Street - Bowie/Jagger
If I Was - Midge Ure
Take On Me - A-Ha
Nikita - Elton John
A Good Heart - Feargal Sharkey
Saving All My Love - Whitney
West End Girls - Pet Shop Boys
Sinclair releases the C5 electric car.
Currah is acquired by DK'Tronics.
Cambridge Computing disappear.
Your Computer and British Telecom release an on-line service for the Spectrum.
Magazines Big K and Personal
Computer Games go under.
Micromania go bust, owed a fortune by collapsing distributor Tiger.
Struggling Quicksilva and Bug Byte are bought by Argus Press.
Sinclair enters a state of financial crisis following the failure of the C5. Company debts stand at £15 million. A proposed take over by Robert Maxwell falls through.
Fantasy Software goes bust.
MC Lothlorien are taken over by Arguss Press.
A deal involving the sale of £10 million of Spectrums to Dixons rescues Sinclair.
Cheap and cheerful
1985 was the year, too, in which the budget scene began producing a good number of titles worth buying. Cheap games had always appealed in principle, but generally disappointed in practice. At a time when most new releases cost upwards of £5, some companies thought they could make a killing by offering games for around the £2 mark - which rather underestimated the discerning tastes of young buyers, and the time and money needed to produce anything decent. The results were not memorable.
A corner was turned in 1984 with Firebird’s enjoyable platformer Booty, and budget titles went from strength to strength the following year, largely thanks to Mastertronic, who produced a string of accomplished and sometimes very good games for loose change prices. Pick of the bunch were Finders Keepers and Spellbound (part of the Magic Knight trilogy), robotic shepherding sim One Man And His Droid, and the engrossing RPG adventure Master of Magic.
Quicksilva and Bug Byte, who had underperformed of late, were bought up by Argus Press, while other old hands like Fantasy and Micromania went bust. The computer press was finding it difficult too, with Big K and Personal Computer Games going under. Your Spectrum chose to adapt rather than die, ending the year with a new name, Your Sinclair, and a more games-based approach.
All the tie-ins, spin-offs and rip-offs aside, 1985 was a great year for well-made software. The industry was more clinical and originality was harder come by, but Spectrum owners benefited from games of the highest quality.