Platform Games

The top five Spectrum platform games, the best of the rest, and a brief history of the genre.

1. MANIC MINER

(Bug Byte - 1983)

This adaptation of Atari 800 title Miner 2049er is still considered by many to be the finest platform game ever produced for the Spectrum. While later examples of the genre featured better graphics, few matched the sheer playability of Matthew Smith's classic. You must guide Miner Willy through twenty levels, collecting a number of keys from perilous platforms. To add to the pressure, Willy has a limited air supply for each room. Manic Miner created unprecedented levels of excitement on its release, turning its author into an overnight software star and guaranteeing a high-profile sequel.

2. KNIGHT LORE

(Ultimate - 1984)

As Sabreman, you must negotiate a series of trap-laden rooms to reach the cure to a disease that transforms you into a werewolf at sunset. That's the basic premise of the game, but there's more to Knight Lore than just compelling platforme action. Its dazzling 3D graphics made every other game look instantly dated - including Sabrewulf, Ultimate's other big release of the year. It's all the more surprising, then, that Knight Lore was completed first, but held back so as not to overshadow Sabrewulf and jeopardise its sales. Ultimate eventually over-egged the isometric 3D pudding, but nothing could sully Knight Lore's reputation as a game-changer.

3. CHUCKIE EGG

(A&F - 1984)

Chuckie Egg is one of the most fondly-remembered games from home computing's golden age. Written by Nigel Alderton as an antidote to Manic Miner, there are comparisons to Donkey Kong to be found in this frantic platformer. You must guide Hen House Harry through increasingly difficult levels, jumping platforms, riding elevators and scaling ladders to collect eggs and avoid the attentions of patrolling hens. During later levels, a giant chicken that had previously been caged at the top of the screen flaps after you. It's nerve-wracking and head-bangingly frustrating, but you'll be playing it again and again.

4. JET SET WILLY

(Software Projects - 1984)

When Matthew Smith left Bug Byte for Software Projects, he took along his work-in-progress: the follow-up to smash hit Manic Miner. It became the most eagerly-awaited game of the year. Magazines fought for exclusive screenshots or an interview with the man himself, and by the time it was released, it had already earned itself mythical status. JSW took the object-collecting premise of Manic Miner and transferred it to a mansion full of nightmarish obstacles. It was hugely difficult, requiring a certain route to be taken (the famous Attic Bug), but highly addictive. JSW's lunatic graphics were often copied, but its inspired brilliance was never matched.

5.  DYNAMITE DAN 2

(Mirrorsoft - 1985)

By the end of 1985, conventional platform games were going out of fashion, but this game is anything but conventional. Take the plot, for instance: 8 islands, containing 24 screens, with 32 randomly strewn objects for you to collect and use. You arrive at each island by airship and your objective is to find a record, play it on a jukebox, collect some fuel for your airship, then move on to the next island and do the same again. On the final island, you must destroy the jukebox and escape within three minutes. There are the inevitable monsters who drain your energy on contact and, more annoyingly, pinch crucial items. Entertaining, challenging and original.

In 1981, Universal's Space Panic arrived in the arcades. It was a levels and ladders affair, later adapted for consoles and computers as Lode Runner, and was the original 'platform' game. The first of its kind to make a significant impact, though, appeared later the same year. Nintendo's Donkey Kong featured a character called Jumpman. On its US release, staff at Nintendo's American HQ renamed the character after their building's landlord, Mario, and a gaming icon was born.

Barely had platformers arrived in the arcades when they found their way onto home computers. There were the inevitable rip-offs, but as well as Panic and Kong clones, 'collecting' platform games started to appear. As the name suggests, they involved guiding a character about a variety of levels, gathering objects, in addition to the now-established tasks of hurdling obstacles and avoiding baddies.

When, in 1983, Matthew Smith adapted Atari 800 hit Miner 2049er for the Spectrum as Manic Miner, platform games truly arrived. When the sequel Jet Set Willy appeared the following year, it triggered a flurry of imitations that made 1984 the heyday of the platform game. Nearly every major software house got in on the act, creating a glut of new hurdling heroes in the process: Monty Mole, Technician Ted and Dynamite Dan, to name but a few.

By 1985, tastes were evolving and the popularity of platformers dwindled. Their increasing size and complexity only made the task of completing them more onerous, and the heartache of going back to the beginning when you failed all the more unbearable. Like other types of game, the well of original ideas ran dry, and players started demanding a more involving experience.

Platform games were still being produced at the end of the Spectrum's life, evolving into the Sonic and Mario games of the early 1990s. Meanwhile, elements of the genre lived on in the likes of the Tomb Raider series and other 3D adventures. But to see the platform game at its purest and its best, check out some of the titles listed here. 

 
The best of the rest

Alien 8 (Ultimate – 1985)
This follow up to Knight Lore is graphically similar to its prequel, using the same isometric 3D perspective, but is set aboard a spacecraft as opposed to a trap-strewn castle. There were grumbles at the time about its similarity to Knight Lore, but it is more playable and, anyway, who can blame Ultimate for making full use of the revolutionary 'Filmation' graphics it had developed. It was arguably the last top-quality game released by Ultimate.

Barmy Burgers (Ultimate – 1985)

Wimpy does Chuckie Egg. This ladders-and-levels game from schoolboy coder Gary Capewell has you building a burger, while avoiding the attentions of hostile ingredients. Good sound, small but colourful graphics, and lively action put it a cut above the average platformer, even if it's a little rustic by the standards of what was to come.

Booty (Firebird – 1984)
Until the release of Booty at Christmas 1984, budget games had been best treated with suspicion. They normally consisted of unwanted titles snapped up by companies looking for a way into the market, or hastily knocked-out tat that assumed buyers would gamble on quality for a low price. Firebird (owned by British Telecom) changed this preconception with Booty. You play Jim the cabin boy and must explore an old galleon, avoiding pirates and collecting treasure. Each level is divided by numbered doors that must be opened by finding the appropriate keys. An perennial favourite of the time.

Bugaboo the Flea (Quicksilva – 1983)
A novel game from Indescomp, the people behind Quicksilva's Fred. They did little else of note, but Bugaboo is a fine reminder of their talents. As the titular insect you find yourself stranded at the bottom of a deep gorge on an alien planet, and must escape by bounding onto successively higher ledges. Judging the strength of your leap is tricky and even if you do make a clean jump, foliage can prevent a safe landing. After a while, a flea-eating dragon appears on the scene to gobble you up. Even if the sound effects are a form of torture, it's a novel and diverting game. 

Jumping Jack (Imagine – 1983)
The graphics leave a lot to be desired, but don't let this put you off. Jumping Jack is early Spectrum gaming at its finest: ferociously addictive gameplay built around a simple conceit, with lip service given to visual finesse. As Jack, you have to negotiate a series of platforms, avoiding moving holes that multiply with each successful jump. Monsters are thrown into the mix on later levels, making the action more frenetic still. Author Albert Ball went on to write Rapscallion for Bug Byte, another fun, but aesthetically-challenged game.

Killer Kong (Blaby – 1983)
No list of platform games would be complete without a Donkey Kong rip-off. Venture beyond the naff cover picture of a grinning ape and you'll find one of the better Kong clones. The graphics aren't of the smooth pixel-by-pixel variety that soon became the norm, and the use of cursor keys for control is not ideal, but it has some neat features, such us trampolines and lifts to help you get about, and the sound is decent.

Nodes of Yesod (Odin – 1985)

Owing much to Ultimate’s Underwurlde, Nodes of Yesod is a sprawling platform game of the highest order. The graphics are exquisite (particularly the crystal caverns), the sound terrific (there's even some synthesised speech upon loading), and the gameplay painfully addictive. If it has a drawback, it's that it's nigh on impossible to complete. As astronaut Charlie, you leap and tumble about the underground caverns of the Moon, collecting crystals with the help of a rock-munching lunar mole. That's the easy part. It's the presence of a red-suited spaceman who steals your crystals that makes the game keyboard-smashingly frustrating. While the game was being written, data was stored on Sinclair Microdrives, and in keeping with their reputation, everything was lost and had to be rewritten from scratch in a fraction of the time. The finished product was not as good as it might have been, but few people had any complaints.

Technician Ted (Hewson – 1984)
At a time when the market was being flooded with platform games, many of dubious quality, Technician Ted stood apart from the crowd. It sported excellent graphics, good sound and progressively difficult screens to traverse. Oh, and the first counter to appear on the loading screen of a Spectrum game. Each level requires a great deal of thought and dexterity to complete, earning Technician Ted a reputation as one of the most rigorous tests of gaming skill on the Spectrum.

Turmoil (Bugbyte – 1984)
Mick the Mechanic - now there's a name that was never going to catch on. Shame really if this cracking game is anything to go by. On each of the 26 levels, you must collect enough oil from the tank at the top of the screen to start your car and drive off to the next level. The usual platforms, ladders and ropes allow Mick to move about, and there are trampolines for bouncing up to higher platforms. The baddies come in the form of Arabs who are peeved at this cheeky wrenchmonkey nicking their black gold. Luckily, a drop spilt in the right place causes them to slip up, rendering them harmless for a few moments - but it can also put Mick on his backside, so be careful where you tread.

Wanted: Monty Mole (Gremlin – 1984)

Despite the success of Jet Set Willy in 1984, it was the first outing of Monty Mole that was voted by Crash readers as the best platform game of the year. Like Willy, Monty is a miner (a topical profession at the time due to the recent miners’ strike), and his profession forms the backdrop to this terrific platformer. The graphics are large and colourful, Monty is a loveable scamp and the general opinion at the time was that the game was every bit as good as JSW. Monty was certainly more prolific than Willy, featuring in three sequels and making him one of the most enduring computer characters of the Spectrum era.

© 2017 R.Tayler