The Spectrum top five, the best of the rest, and a brief history of arcade games.
(Ultimate - 1983)
Before they became kings of the 3D platformer, Ultimate specialised in fun, fast-moving games like this, which avoided the temptation to copy whatever was popular in the arcades, and were of a higher standard than most titles on the market at the time. In Cookie, you control Charlie the Chef, and must stun food ingredients with flour bombs, knock them into the mixing bowl at the bottom of the screen, and put other items into the adjacent dustbins. Get them the wrong way round and you lose points and time. Similar in look and feel to Pssst, this is addictive arcade gaming at its best.
(Ultimate - 1983)
Ultimate again with another of its 1983 hits. Help Robbie the Robot prevent a swarm of insects from eating his precious plant using the spray cans of insecticide - but be sure to use the right one, or it will only stun the beast rather than killing it. If you manage to stave off the attack long enough, the plant will bloom and you move onto the next level. Like Cookie, this is simple, unadulterated gaming of the highest order. Although Ultimate became renowned for its graphically-impressive later titles, it's these early, pared-down titles they deserve to be remembered for.
3. RUN BABY RUN
(Micro Gold - 1983)
If you're unfamiliar with this title, then it's one of the most frustrating and addictive games you never played. Author Tony Rainbird (future founder of Rainbird Software) started Micro Gold from his bedroom, producing two titles: Run Baby Run and Race Ace. The latter was released on Firebird's Don't Buy This, a compilation of naff games, so the less said about it the better. Run Baby Run, on the other hand, was a great deal better. You control a getaway car, with a team of coppers hot on your tail. The aim is to zip craftily around a series of mazes, forcing the police cars to collide with each other. A real edge-of-your-seat affair.
4. TRANZ AM
(Ultimate - 1983)
That Ultimate holds three of the top five positions goes to show how fondly its games are remembered, and how playable they were compared to contemporary titles. Tranz Am is set in a post-nuclear holocaust America, where only a few scattered cities provide fuel for your sports car. You must explore the badlands, collecting eight gold cups along the way, and avoiding the menacing black turbos. The score is represented by miles travelled, and there are fuel and engine temperature levels to monitor. A captivating classic, presumably inspired by the movie Mad Max.
5. SCUBA DIVE
(Durell - 1983)
Glug glug...no, hang on that's a different game. This aquatic number puts you in a wet suit and drops you to the bottom of the ocean to collect pearls. Before their precious bounty can be pocketed, you must wait for the oysters to open - a nervy business given that the seas are patrolled by a variety of man-eating fishies. If your air begins to run low, you'll have to return to your boat to restock. Greater treasures are to be found in the deeper caverns, but so are more deadly creatures. Scuba Dive's smooth, colourful graphics impressed at the time and remain good-looking today - and it still plays as well as ever. A game to be treasured.
Ah Diddums (Imagine – 1983)
You are a teddy bear locked in a toy box, who needs to escape to comfort your crying baby. This means assembling coloured building blocks in the correct order, while avoiding the nastier toys who want to stop you. Once out, you discover you're inside another, bigger box. And so it continues, until you finally escape. The colour-clash is fairly hideous, but no worse than many other games of the time, and it's certainly one of Imagine's better early contributions. There's something slightly sinister about this game.
Glug Glug (CRL – 1984)
Not a rehash of Scuba Dive, but an excellent game in its own right. You'll find no flippers or air tanks here. You are in an old fashioned diving suit which you must winch up and down to collect treasures and avoid hostile sealife. You are also armed with a gun to see off any of the aquatic beasties who get too close for comfort.
Mined Out (Quicksilva – 1983)
It's written in BASIC, the graphics are rubbish and the sound abysmal, yet Mined Out is ludicrously playable. You must pick your way across a minefield without being blown to pieces. A detector tells you how many mines are in adjacent squares, but it's up to you to work out which squares they occupy. As you progress, there are stranded maidens to rescue and, apparently, at higher levels things appear that chase you - although I can safely say I've never made it that far.
Quazatron (Hewson - 1986)
Hewson got stick from some quarters of the industry (can't recall why - jealousy maybe), but they outlasted virtually everyone and produced some cracking games. Quazatron is much more than a simple shoot 'em up and is typical of the imagination and originality shown by Hewson in their pomp. You guide a droid called Klepto about a 3D playing area, taking out the enemy droids that inhabit the underground city of Quazatron by blasting them, ramming them, or reprogramming their circuitry to put them under your control. Arguably this game doesn't belong in this section, but what the hell.
The term 'arcade game' suggests anything that might have been found in an amusement arcade, but as new, distinct types of videogame appeared, some found themselves fitted into categories so niche as to be meaningless. Driving games or adventures are easily identifiable, but a 'Frogger' is too specific, and for the sake of convenience should probably fall under the general heading of 'arcade game'.
Pac-Man was a gaming phenomenon in the early Eighties. Originally titled Puckman, it was wisely re-named by Namco for the Western market on its release in 1980. The little yellow muncher (whose appearance was inspired by designer Toru Iwatani seeing a pizza with a slice missing) became the first named videogame character, and the star of perhaps the most perfect arcade game of them all.
Pac-Man had everything: accessible, addictive gameplay, lip-biting tension and a fun underdog character. It became a monster success for Namco, but sadly none of the fortune it made found its way to Iwatani, who left the company and never produced another game.
In the Spectrum's formative days, arcade favourites such as Pac-Man were copied wholesale, with a flagrant disregard for licensing. Virtually every software house got in on the act, with some notable successes and, of course, some dismal failures: games generally written in BASIC, which exploited the the buying public's early lack of discernment.
Soon enough, programmers moved on from arcade staples and began to create the kind of games that probably only ever existed on the Spectrum. It was these quirky and peculiarly British titles that set the Spectrum apart from its contemporaries.
Compared to today's incredible 3D graphics, all Spectrum games look primitive, so they can be judged on a level playing field. At the time, however, reviewers and players were easily wowed by good graphics, because the industry was young and the sight of elaborate visuals possessed a magical quality that rendered games they belonged to inherently brilliant.
This persuaded some reviewers to give new titles praise they may not have deserved. Nowadays, we are no so easily wowed, so Spectrum games can be judged on their gameplay, with an objectivity that may have been lacking at the time of their release. The games listed here place playability above graphical finesse.
The best of the other Spectrum releases not directly inspired by coin-op favourites.
about the train. Grab a passing bird and you can launch it like a missile at your enemies. Once inside the train, you can avoid the Redmen by swinging on the hanging straps, but be careful to avoid the dreadful creatures that lurk between them.
Thrust (Firebird – 1986)
If you like that game where you pass a ring over a twisted loop of metal without letting them touch, you'll love Thrust. You must visit a series of rocky planets in your spacecraft, collecting probes with your tractor beam, and avoiding or destroying defensive guns. Control is similar to that in Asteroids, but with the added drag of the planet's gravity. As you progress, the probes are located in deeper and more treacherous caverns, making for some nail-biting missions. One of the finest budget titles ever released.
The Train Game (Microsphere – 1983)
Despite first impressions, this game is anything but dull. You control up to three trains on a twisting railway network. Passengers appear on the platforms of three stations in the colour of the train they want to catch and turn white with rage if you keep them waiting too long. Once the trains are on their way, you must switch the points to keep them from colliding. On later levels rogue trains appear on your rails and must be directed away. Simple, addictive and maddening.
Stop the Express (Sinclair - 1983)
One of the more original games you'll come across. The ITA express train has fallen into the hands of the ruthless Redmen, and you are tasked with stopping it before it reaches the border. To do this, you must reach the front carriage and unlock the driver's cabin. If you come into contact with a Redman or one of his throwing knives, you lose a life. Your only ally in this thankless task is the snakebird: a mysterious beast that flutters
Trashman (New Generation – 1984)
You're a dustman who patrols sleepy residential streets, collecting bins and emptying them into your dustcart. The pluses are plenty of fresh air and tips from the locals if you stop for a friendly chat. On the downside, you're up against the clock and if the time runs out, the punters complain and you're out of a job. There's also traffic to avoid, plus dogs who nip at your ankles and slow you down. And stay off those manicured lawns, or you'll be docked points.
West Bank (Gremlin – 1986)
Set in bank in the Old West, you are presented with twelve doors, three of which can be viewed at any one time. As the doors open, you are either faced with an honest local looking to make a deposit, or a ruthless outlaw who must be gunned down before he puts a bullet in you. One joker arrives with a line of bowler hats perched on his head that have to be shot away before the door closes, to expose either a bag of loot or a bomb. Shoot the bomb and it's curtains. Once you've collected money at every door, you cut to a bonus round where you take on three outlaws in a shoot out. Be sure not to shoot them before they've drawn, or you'll lose a life. A straightforward but imaginative game, requiring sharp reflexes.
Wheelie (Microsphere – 1984)
Some games had such bizarre set-ups that they can only have been inspired by fever dreams or psychedelic drugs. Take Wheelie, for instance (actually, check out Stop the Express for the ultimate acid trip plotline). You find yourself on your motorbike in Nightmare Park, which is split into a number of levels patrolled by vicious hedgehog-like creatures. You must speed through the park, avoiding the animals and leaping over obstacles such as buses (in a park?). Be ready on the brakes, though, or you'll find yourself crashing into a dead-end. If you reach the end, you meet the Ghost Rider, who will race you back to the other side. A favourite at the time and still highly playable.
Worse Things Happen at Sea (R&R - 1984)
You play a maintenance robot aboard an automated ship, who must to ensure the cargo is transported safely from one port to another. For such a high-tech vessel, the build quality is lousy, because it starts to sink the moment it sets sail. It's a case of both hands to the pump as you race about the ship, locating and fixing leaks, shutting hatches and pumping out water from flooded rooms - being careful your robot's batteries don't run out, or that he doesn't short-circuit from working in too much water. A thoroughly original and challenging game.
A short-lived sub-genre, gridrunners took inspiration from the film Tron, placing you in vehicles like the movie's 'light cycles'. As you crisscross the playing area, you leave a track for your opponent to crash into.
Cruising on Broadway (Sunshine – 1983)
Pursued by a police car, your only way of evading him is to block his path with your trail. If he catches you, you return to the start. Points are scored for time survived. Once you've completed the course, you move onto a new frame with a different layout. Sounds uninspiring, but my favourite of all these games.
Knot in 3D (New Generation – 1983)
This first-person gridrunner by Malcolm 'Trashman' Evans is baffling to start with, as you move through an empty white space with seemingly nothing happening, but soon enough your trails and those of your fellow chasers begin to appear, and you find yourself in a clammy-palmed struggle to force them into a collision before they do the same to you. In 1983, before convincing 3D graphics became commonplace, Knot in 3D had the power to wow, although other games of this type were probably less confusing and more straightforward to play.
Light Cycle (PSS – 1983)
A close copy of the lightcycle segment from arcade game Tron, where you must force your opponent to crash into your trail. The graphics are rather primitive, but what it lacks in visual finesse it more than makes up for in speed.
Transversion (Ocean – 1983)
Surely the most successful game of its type. Here the grid represents an area of outer space, with each edge guarded by an alien ship that you must destroy by ploughing into it. This is no easy feat, as they launch missiles down the gridlines at you. The only let down is that you're given just one life.
Whether or not they're populated by ghosts and pizza-headed munchers, the best maze games induce sweaty palms and rising panic.
Do Do (Blaby – 1983)
You are the world's last surviving Dodo, on the run from the Snow Bees of the Arctic (dodos and bees in the Arctic?) Like arcade classics Mr Do and Pengy, this involves making your own maze by burrowing through ice, and then shunting blocks of the frozen stuff into the path of your pursuers to trap or crush them. Surprisingly good.
Escape (New Generation – 1982)
You are are in nifty little 3D maze, searching for a key to the exit - which is out of sight due to the viewing perspective and can only be found by running into it. Stalking the maze is a dinosaur that homes in on you the moment the game begins. If you manage to elude your pursuer and escape the maze, you start the next level with two dinosaurs to worry about. The game continues in this vein until you eventually faint with panic.
Escape-MCP (Rabbit – 1983)
A good game from Rabbit? Surely not. Like some perverse take on the film Tron, you have been sucked into your Spectrum's processor and must find your way out, while the dreaded master control program tracks you down. There's a key to escape each level, but don't hang about or the remorseless MCP will be on you. Really rather enjoyable.
Gulpman (Campbell Systems – 1983)
A Pac-Man clone with a difference: no power pills but a laser that will kill any ghosts in its range. Looks like it was written in BASIC, but genuinely good fun.
Hungry Horace (Psion – 1982)
Horace was surely the Spectrum's first original games character and remains one of its best-loved. This is essentially a Pac-Man clone with a few minor tweaks. For starters, Horace is not a cheery yellow muncher but some sort of hulking monster, and there are no power pills so it's arguably tougher than its arcade relation.
Lord Harry & Lady Harriet (Lotus – 1983)
Here's one of those games that was advertised in black-and-white small ads and consequently passed most gamers by. But as it happens, it's not too shabby. You have the choice of playing either of the titular characters in your efforts to escape a friend's huge, maze-like garden. There's an exit to find, vicious dogs in hot pursuit, mushrooms to keep the old energy up, and a variety of other obstacles to avoid. To add to the tension, there's one poisoned mushroom in each of the four gardens that will kill Harry/Harriet stone dead unless you find the exit within 99 seconds.
Maziacs (DK Tronics – 1983)
What a classic. You are stranded in a maze guarded by the dreaded Maziacs. Your aim is to find a stash of gold, scoff food to keep your energy levels up and give the Maziacs a wide berth. Swords can be found about the maze to defend yourself with, though they can only be used once. There are prisoners locked up in the maze who will point you in the right direction, but once you've found the gold you can't carry any swords, so the threat of the Maziacs only grows. A frustrating and playable maze game.
Pac-Man (Atarisoft – 1984)
If you're going to play it, why not play the officially-licensed version. It came a bit late in the day (4 years after the arcade original - Atarisoft were always good at missing the boat), but all the original features are here: power pills, ghosts and tunnels. A classic.
Splat (Incentive – 1983)
A simple notion: a maze game where the maze is constantly moving, with walls that kill on contact. You'll need a steady hand and someone to mop your brow as you pick your way through this one. Fact: Incentive sent me a free Splat coaster with another game I ordered which I used for years.
Zig Zag (DK'Tronics – 1984)
In the first few years of the Spectrum's life, 3D graphics were rare and special enough to woo gamers by themselves, and often masked a lack of substance. Zig Zag probably falls into this category, although there are worse ways to pass some time than chasing chubby Scarabaqs round a colourful maze, interrogating them for pass codes, and zapping hoverdroids. One of the earliest games I bought (as opposed to the - cough - 'back up copies' I recorded off friends).
Another ephemeral format. Not to be confused with platform games, painters involve covering an area in paint with baddies in pursuit.
Color Clash (Romik – 1982)
A top notch painter that requires you to slap emulsion around some squares and avoid the attentions of malicious paint pots. There are four levels to complete. Tense stuff.
High Rise Harry (Blaby – 1983)
More than the rest of these titles, High Rise Harry manages to combine platform elements with painting duties. As Harry, it's your thankless task to rustproof a construction of girders by traversing ladders, lifts and slides, and leaping over roaming nasties. As with most of Blaby's offerings, the graphics are small and simple, but they do the job well enough.
Oh Mummy (Gem – 1984)
An ever-present on the shelves of my local John Menzies. You play an Indiana Jones type, exploring the tombs of Egypt. In order to uncover their contents, you must speed around a square made up by the passageways, leaving a trail in your wake. There's treasure to uncover and some ancient uglies hot on your tail.
Painter (A&F – 1983)
A classy version from the people who brought you Chuckie Egg. Armed with an aerosol, you are initially pursued by a paint roller, hellbent on flattening you. As you progress through the levels, the roller is joined by half of Homebase, upping the ante and the tension. The graphics and sound are superb for this kind of game and it's ferociously addictive.
Other arcade conversions
A licensed conversion and a blatant rip-off from the Spectrum's golden age.
Froggy (Microsphere – 1984)
This an excellent copy of the old arcade favourite Frogger. You must guide a green amphibian to safety across a variety of roads and rivers, riding on logs and turtles' backs, and avoiding cars, trucks and alligators. Pretty basic, but worth a mention as an arcade standard of the time.
Tapper (US Gold – 1985)
Like all the best arcade games, Tapper is simple, frustrating and addictive. You are a barman, serving four counters of drinkers. These thirsty punters shuffle their way up the bars towards you and can only be kept at bay by sliding them a beer. If they reach you before their drink arrives, or you serve one beer too many, you lose a life. Once the drinkers have finished their pints, the glasses get launched back at you and you need to catch them before they fall off the end of the bar. Extra points are scored for collecting tips left by the customers. When you complete a level, you are take to a bonus stage. In this, the Soda Bandit stands behind seven cans lined up on the bar and then shakes six of them before mixing them up. You have to pick the unshaken one to get the bonus points. Unmissable.