SHOOT 'EM UPS   

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

1. JETPAC

(Ultimate - 1983)

Like most early Ultimate titles, Jetpac is an icon of the Spectrum era that made people sit up and take notice of what this little machine could achieve. You guide your jet-packed spaceman about a number of levels, assembling your spacecraft and refuelling it, while shooting down the meteorites that pour across the screen. With its smooth bright graphics, it was the closest thing to a real arcade game many people had seen on a home computer - and all from less than 16K of code. Sequel Lunar Jetman fleshed out the gameplay and was the first Ultimate game to require 48K of RAM, but for pure, pared-down shoot 'em up action, look no further than Jetpac.

2. LIGHT FORCE

(Faster Than Light - 1986)

As programmers honed their skills during the early eighties, one of the first types of game to benefit was the shoot 'em up, and this handsome scrolling shooter benefited more than most. Creators Roy Carter and Greg Follis were better-known for graphical adventures like Dun Darach, released under the Gargoyle Games label (FTL was an offshoot of Gargoyle set up to release arcade titles), but had already proved their shoot ‘em up mettle with Ad Astra a couple of years earlier. Light Force's ferocious action and smooth, clash-free graphics represented a high water mark for the genre that later titles struggled to surpass.

3. COMMANDO

(Elite Systems - 1986)

Elite’s conversion of this 1985 arcade hit was a product of the license-buying frenzy between Imagine (in its Ocean-owned guise) and Elite, who snapped up the rights to coin-op titles by Konami and Capcom respectively. The actual gameplay differs very little from the standard shoot 'em up. You are Super Joe, the special forces soldier of the title (and hero of Capcom's earlier Bionic Commando), on an army-of-one rampage through enemy territory. Unlike other contemporary shooters, it uses a nearly-top-down perspective, which works very effectively. Tough, frantic and addictive, it is rightly revered as a classic.

4. HIGHWAY ENCOUNTER

(Vortex - 1985)

Highway Encounter was the first shoot 'em up to use the kind of isometric 3D graphics popularised by Ultimate. It was written by cult programmer Costa Panayi, who had found success with titles like Android, Cyclone and Tornado Low Level (TLL). You control a droid that must be guided up a road, clearing it of aliens and obstacles. The road is spread over thirty-two screens, each presenting its own problems and requiring a slightly different approach, and everything is played out against the clock, adding to the tension. Like all of Panayi's 3D efforts, it is beautiful to look at and a delight to play.

5.  URIDIUM

(Hewson - 1985)

Originally a hit on the Commodore 64, Uridium was widely regarded as the ultimate scrolling shooter when it was released on the Spectrum. The plot is straight from the genre playbook: fly a low-level mission over an enemy battlecruiser and shoot everything that moves. In fact, shoot it even if it doesn't move. What distinguishes it from the usual fare are the crisp monochrome graphics and the surprising degrees of cunning and stealth required. Another ace in its hand is the way you can throw your little fighter into a 180-degree turn to finish off any enemies that slip past you.

Airwolf (Richard Wilcox - 1984)
From the company soon to become Elite Systems, this Scramble-esque battle through a series of hostile enemy zones proves thrillingly addictive, providing you can get past the spitefully difficult early stages (that wall!). The lack of a congratulations screen at the end miffed the few hardy gamers who weathered the course.

Android 2 (Vortex - 1984)
Stop the advance of the Millitoids, survive the maze of death, rationalise the paradox zone, and overcome the dangers of the flatlands before your time runs out! You are the android of the title, hunting down enemy bots in a deadly maze. There are other hazards to negotiate, such as mines, hoverdroids and bouncers, and it's all viewed in Ant Attack-style 3D on a randomly generated maze. Like all of Costa Panayi's games, it looks good, but is bitchingly difficult.

Arcadia (Imagine - 1982)
The game that launched Imagine Software. They later made some extraordinary (and false) claims about how many copies it sold, which was typical of the bluster that surrounded the company until its untimely end. This is a traditional shoot 'em up, with your gunship at the base of the screen and aliens swarming from right to left. The graphics were good for the time, but there's little to recommend it ahead of other contemporary shooters.

Bedlam (MC Lothlorien - 1983)
A maze-based shoot 'em up set on a deadly asylum planet. Curiously for an inmate, you have been armed with a laser cannon, but bless your woolly-headed liberal doctors, because you're going to need it to fend off wave after wave of marauding lunatics. Hectic fun.

Blade Alley (PSS - 1984)

A pleasing shooter (albeit with an annoying tune) set in Death Star-style trenches and over alien landscapes. You view your ship from behind with the baddies coming at you from over the horizon, and have to match the altitude of your ship to that of the onrushing enemy in order to hit them. The 3D effects dated quickly, but make the task of bringing down your foe that much trickier.

Cobra (Ocean - 1986)
In the mid to late Eighties, Ocean spewed forth a torrent of licensed tie-ins, lashed to a tried-and-tested scrolling shooter template. This tended to result in well-made, nicely animated games that were woefully lacking in imagination. When the formula was still fresh, they produced Cobra, which combined platform, arcade-adventure and shoot 'em up elements to excellent effect. Similar in many ways to their later titles (Green Beret, Midnight Resistance, etc.), this is as fine an example of its kind as you'll find.

Death Star Interceptor (System 3 - 1985)
With a name like this, you know originality won't be a strong point, but this attractive and involving shoot 'em up is still more inspired than many works of the time. Earth is under threat from a deadly mechanical planet clanking its way through space. You start by launching from Earth to head-off an onrushing drove of fighters. From there it's into the Death Star's gun-filled trench to launch a torpedo down its exhaust vent and blow the evil metal moon to dust. Then it's onto the next level for more of the same. This is an exquisitely crafted title from David Aubrey-Jones, who later brought Mercenary to the Spectrum.

Laser Zone (Salamander - 1984)
So many shoot 'em ups involve the same tired conceit of a lone gunship and regiments of diving aliens that it's refreshing to find something a bit different. Coming from the fertile imagination of old Llama-head himself, Jeff Minter, the game is set on a grid, with gun turrets on the X and Y axis. Aliens attack from the left of the screen and you need to manoeuver both guns to intercept them. A searingly fast and splendidly enjoyable game.

Night Gunner (Digital Integration - 1984)
As well as producing authentic flight simulators, Digital Integration released this unconventional shoot 'em up. Although there are loose flight sim elements in it, it's essentially an arcade shooter set aboard a World War II bomber. There are several action segments to negotiate: defending against enemy fighters, shooting down barrage balloons and dropping bombs, each requiring different skills. A refreshing take on the genre.

Psytron (Beyond - 1984)
It's a shame this absorbing game from Beyond isn't better-known or more fondly remembered. Perhaps it was too complex for casual gamers looking for quickfire thrills and too action-packed for hardcore strategy fans. Psytron sees you defending a planetary base against enemy attacks in the air, on the ground and within the building itself. As well as zapping aliens, you have to maintain the base, set defensive priorities and manage the crew. Oh, and side 2 of the cassette featured a sneak preview of Beyond's forthcoming game: a little number called Lords of Midnight.

The Pyramid (Fantasy - 1983)
There are some original ideas to be found in this sprawling, multi-room alien blaster from Fantasy's Hamilton brothers. You pilot hero Ziggy about the titular pyramid in an armed capsule, collecting crystals in order to move onto the next chamber. Instead of lives,  your capsule has a protective shield that is depleted when it comes into contact with enemies. Rather than awarding points for shooting aliens, your score starts at 9999 and continually falls until you complete the level. High scores could be submitted to Fantasy for publication in a newsletter, but it's probably safe to say they're no longer doing this.

In the Spring of 1962, MIT programmer Steve Russell was spending his spare time designing a rudimentary game on one of the institute's two DEC PDP-1 mainframes. After a few months he had the cathode ray tube display showing a pair of small space ships that could be manoeuvred about the screen and made to fire at each other. The first shoot 'em up had been produced and its name was Spacewar.

 

The rest of his programming team added features such as a starfield, a sun that exerted a gravitational pull, and the primitive forerunners of today's joysticks. Having briefly considered selling the code for Spacewar, Russell decided to give it away. It found its way into universities across America and was played extensively by a young man at the University of Utah named Nolan Bushnell.

 

While working in an amusement park during the summer, Bushnell wondered if people would pay to play a cabinet-based version of Spacewar. This wasn't viable at the time, due to the cost and limitations of available technology, but by 1970 Intel had invented the microprocessor and it became a realistic prospect.

By now, Bushnell was working with an engineering company in California and in a better position to put his ideas into practice. He and a colleague set up a workshop and developed Computer Space, which owed a great deal to Spacewar. He approached pinball manufacturer Nutting Associates with the design and they agreed to take him and Computer Space on board.

 

1,500 units were built, but the game flopped miserably. For a public used to nothing more complex than pinball, Computer Space was like rocket science, with its unusual controls and perplexing instructions. Undeterred, Bushnell parted ways with Nutting and formed his own company, named after a term from the Japanese board game Go: Atari.

Everything changed in 1978, when Japanese company Taito unveiled Space Invaders. Within months it had caused a shortage of the coin required to play it in Japan and made a similarly profound impact in the USA and Europe. It went on to gross over $500 million and revolutionise the games industry. The shoot 'em up had truly arrived.

With Space Invaders came new concepts like the high score table, which Atari's 1979 hit Asteroids took a step further by allowing players to add their initials. This simple feature lent a higher purpose to games with no ultimate purpose beyond surviving level after level of increasingly frantic action.

By 1982, arcade gaming was drawing to the end of a golden age. Shoot 'em ups like Scramble, Galaxian, Asteroids and Defender were in vogue. Newer concepts like 3D had started to be seen in titles like Battlezone, Tempest and Star Wars.

The end of the arcade machine's heyday coincided, not by chance, with the advent of home computers. Players wanted to enjoy their favourite games without having to leave the house with a pocketful of change. With little concern for matters of licencing or copyright, imitations of popular shoot 'em ups appeared everywhere.

Melbourne House's Penetrator was an early conversion of Konami's classic Scramble, while Durell used the same game as the basis of its Falklands-inspired Harrier Attack. Versions of Phoenix, Galaxian and Moon Cresta abounded, but after a year or so of humdrum clones, original titles began to appear, offering more than just wave after wave of aliens to blast.

With what became an early Spectrum trademark, fresh ideas turned the shoot 'em up into something that wasn't found in the arcade. Some fine examples of the genre remained mere conversions of new arcade titles, but the most fondly remembered are the likes of Ultimate's Jetpac and Costa Panayi's Highway Encounter, which took popular ideas and gave them an original twist.

 

Spectrum Originals

Most 'original' shoot 'em ups still owe a debt to existing games, but played a crucial part in dragging the genre from its roots into something that played to the strengths of the home computer.

 

3 Deep Space (Postern - 1983)

Not a great game, but worthy of a mention for its use of 3D glasses, which theoretically produced a true three-dimensional effect, but in reality was a total fiasco. It's also noteworthy for being an early title by Mike Singleton of Lords of Midnight fame. Which was somewhat better.

Ad Astra (Gargoyle - 1984)

A scrolling shooter with a difference - the difference being its use of large 3D graphics and a viewpoint behind and above your ship as you rocket through space, blasting aliens and dodging asteroids. The graphics are impressive, but sometimes look too large for the screen. Gameplay isn't slick enough to sustain interest for long, but at the time it represented a novel approach to a flagging genre.

Defender Games

The speed, energy and deafening sound effects of the original were always going to be a challenge for the Spectrum, but there were some fair attempts.

Defenda (Mikrogen - 1983)
Not a bad effort, with all the expected elements and some decent graphics, but a bit of a slow coach compared to some other titles.
Invasion of the Body Snatchas (Crystal - 1983)
In true early Spectrum tradition, this game underwent gangsta name-change to avoid any court action from producers of the similarly-named movie. This is an agile and taxing Defender, but the graphics leave a lot to be desired, and unless you owned a Fuller box, there was no sound.
Orbiter (Silversoft - 1982)
Although it was squeezed into just 16K and was one of the earliest Defender clones on the market, this is surprisingly good, offering some perky graphics and original sound effects. There are plenty of aliens to blast and it remains as faithful as any of these games to the original.
Starblitz (Silversoft - 1984)
The Speccy's eight colours, attribute clash and humble sound chip meant that only so much could be done to convert some of the best arcade games. Starblitz is as close a replica of Defender as you'll find in the Spectrum's back catalogue. The graphics are smooth, speedy and large (maybe too large), and the spectacular explosions are a treat. Fast and furious action every bit as demanding as the real thing.

Galaxian / Phoenix Games

The descending wail of a formation of aliens as they swoop down on a lone gunship is an evocative memory for many a gamer. Attempts to recreate the sights, sounds and tension of the original on the Spectrum weren't quite arcade authentic, but there were some distinguished efforts nonetheless.

Scramble Games

 

Firebird (Softek - 1983)
It's a Phoenix game and not a bad one. Like the original, there are waves of attacking space birds to blast away, before you take on the might of the mothership. Good graphics and decent sound effects make this well worth a play.

Galaxians (Artic - 1982)
A cracking conversion. The graphics are neat and colourful and the aliens attack in convincing fashion, showering you with laser bolts. There are a few colour-clash problems and the sound effects aren't great, but don't let that put you off this classic shoot 'em up.

Hawks (Lotus Soft - 1983)
A Phoenix-style game where you control a heavily-armed moon buggy. Enemy space birds launch eggs towards the surface which will hatch unless you deal with them promptly. Your buggy is bristling with missiles, lasers and mines to combat your feathery foe. More involving that most shooters.
Pheenix (Megadodo - 1984)
Now there's a name for a software company! This is one of the most accurate arcade conversions made for the Spectrum. All the standard components are present and correct: a lone gunship versus a swooping formation of birds, who swirl about the screen, bombarding you with laser fire. There are five different attack waves, culminating in a battle against the mothership, which must have its force field worn away before it can be destroyed.

In Konami's 1980 classic, you guide your ship over an enemy landscape and through treacherous caverns, destroying what you can with cannon and bombs. Missiles and rockets are launched into your path and enemy craft join the attack. The Spectrum threw up numerous interpretationsHere are the best.

Cavern Fighter (Bug Byte - 1984)
This is a great Scramble clone, capturing the addictiveness and frustration of the original to perfection. The graphics are large and bright and the sound is surprisingly good. Although it was a relative latecomer to the Scramble party, Cavern Fighter was certainly one of the best.
Harrier Attack (Durell - 1983)
Hot on the tail of Britain's success in the Falkland's War came this Argie-bashing cash-in. Not that it specifically referred to events in the South Atlantic, but it was clearly trading on the Harrier's starring role in the conflict. Starting your mission aboard an aircraft carrier, you must guide your jump-jet over the nearby island, destroying ground targets and avoiding missiles, rockets and enemy aircraft. An excellent example of its kind.
Penetrator (Melbourne House - 1982)
A faintly smutty title, and one of the earliest and best Spectrum conversions. The gameplay is almost identical to Scramble, with the usual caverns to fly through, missiles to dodge, and an arsenal of rockets and bombs to unleash. It was an enduring chart-botherer for many years, largely due to Melbourne House's relentless plugging of its back catalogue.
Scramble (Mikrogen - 1983)
As the title suggests, a faithful version with all the usual features. The graphics are good and it accurately follows the layout of the original, but keyboard-smashingly difficult.

Space Invaders Games

Taito's seminal alien blaster was already long in the tooth by the time the Spectrum appeared, but it spawned countless imitators nonetheless.

 
Galactic Trooper (Romik - 1983)
The best of the bunch, in my opinion. There three levels of difficulty and more targets to shoot at than in the original. Much busier than other titles, but like all Invader games, there's only so much for you to do.
Space Intruders (Quicksilva - 1982)
The first commercial Spectrum game of them all, Space Intruders was written by John Hollis on a pre-release mock-up of the computer, to steal a march on the competition. Quicksilva obtained one of the first Spectrums off the production line and loaded the game for a test run, only to find that it crashed. Checks found the problem to be with the hardware, rather than the code, so Sinclair Research was informed and the initial batch of 2000 machines was hastily recalled. A peek inside one of these early examples will reveal a rogue transistor attached to the circuitry as a remedy. As for the game itself, it's nothing to get excited about, with its tiddly graphics and modest sound effects, but it warrants a mention as a milestone in the Spectrum’s history.
Space Raiders (Softek - 1982)
Better-looking than Quicksilva's Invader-a-like, with some welcome additional features, but Space Raiders is ruined somewhat by being painfully slow. Try it on an emulator with the speed cranked up.
Spectral Invaders (Bug Byte - 1982)
An old game from one of the oldest Spectrum software houses of them all. Look beyond the creaky premise and you'll find a competent Invaders adaptation written by Dave Lawson, who went on to co-found Imagine Software. Despite its limitations it was a hit at the time, thanks mainly to a series of full-page ads in the computer press.

Other arcade conversions

By the mid-Eighties, arcade rip-offs had been supplanted by fully-licensed conversions. New or old, they attempted to squeeze the fireworks of a coin-op machine into the puny confines of the Spectrum. This was always going to mean compromises but, crucially, the gameplay often remained intact.

Battlezone (Quicksilva - 1985)

By the time Quicksilva released this licensed conversion of Atari's classic tank game, it had already been done to death courtesy of a zillion unofficial rip-offs. 1985's gamers no doubt felt their tastes had evolved in the five years since it arrived in the arcades, so it didn't exactly storm the charts. But looked at with an eye unprejudiced by the fads and pretensions of yesteryear, it's clear that Battlezone is a faithful and superior conversion.

 

Cosmic Debris (Artic - 1982)

A take on the old Asteroids format, so you know the score: a little ship, a puny cannon, a hyperspace button and a cluster of space rocks waiting to be blasted to dust. This is the best Spectrum version I've come across. It uses the same simple but effective line graphics as the original and it's devilishly fast.

Green Beret (Ocean - 1986)

An early exponent of those irritating double-cassette boxes that wouldn’t fit into your WH Smith storage case. That aside, this is standard Ocean scrolling shooter fare, albeit very well done. Think Cobra with knobs on. The game scrolls beautifully and there are endless baddies to blow away with an assortment of different weapons.

Missile Defence (Anirog - 1983)
Without the cultured movement afforded by a trackball, Missile Command games lost something in their conversion to home computers. However, if you rig a joystick up to this version you'll find it the best Spectrum rendition by far. Be warned, though: if you opt to use the keyboard, there are no less than seven keys to master, making it almost unplayable.

Mooncresta (Incentive - 1984)
A trip to the Space War! Until the release of Mooncresta, most of Incentive's games had been adventures and strategies, but their officially-licensed version of Nichibutsu’s arcade hit was one of the most polished conversions of the era. Unlike other games of its ilk, your lives are represented by the three stages of your spacecraft. Plenty of neat aliens whirl about the screen for you to zap and even the sound effects are good for its type.

Robotics (Ocean - 1984)
This is based on the arcade favourite Beserk and places you in a series of connecting rooms with electrified walls, each full of deadly robots that must be destroyed. It's a simple but compelling concept, and this is a nifty version possesses the clear graphics and gameplay that made the arcade version such a classic.

Star Firebirds (Insight - 1985)
An adaptation of Nintendo's Space Firebird from brothers Mike and Tim Follin. Mike was a brilliant games programmer, who worked on gaming greats like The Sentinel, Bionic Commando and the Playstation version of Quake II. Tim was a musician responsible for the most memorable tunes of the era. Despite featuring their considerable talents, Star Firebirds, is an unspectacular if perfectly playable game, probably most notable for Tim Follin's first effort at Spectrum music: a rendition of the opening to Stravinsky's Firebird Suite.

Terra Cresta (Ocean - 1986)
The vogue from the mid-Eighties onwards was to dispense with colours in favour of clash-free, if slightly bland, monochromatic graphics. This may have been one of the reasons that many later titles came to look so similar. This didn't necessarily mean a bad game, as this cracking conversion proves. Written by Ocean's best programmer of the time, Joffa Smith, Terra Cresta is a fine top-down shooter with some great power-ups - even if half the screen is taken up by the scoreboard.

© 2017 R.Tayler