The top five Spectrum arcade adventures, the best of the rest, and a brief history of the genre.
1. 3D DEATHCHASE
(Micromega - 1983)
In 1983, 3D movies experienced a revival and software firms seized on their popularity by promising games with a three-dimensional experience. It was a promise made so freely that it invariably disappointed. There were exceptions, though, such as Mervyn Escourt's Deathchase. There's a perfunctory storyline - something about mighty warlords battling for the forests - but never mind that. A game this instantly playable doesn't need a plot. You must steer your motorbike through a forest and destroy two enemy bikes to progress to the next level, where the forest becomes denser. And that's it. The 3D effect is astounding and the action frantic. Superb.
2. CHEQUERED FLAG
(Sinclair / Psion - 1984)
The road racing game was still waiting for a hero at the time of Chequered Flag’s release. Most people were hoping for an arcade-style racer along the lines of Atari's Pole Position, but Psion delivered a technically-minded Formula One simulator. True, it allows you to race against the clock around ten of the world's most famous tracks, but only on you own - and this lack of rival racers is the game's principal drawback. Still, the graphics are good, there are hazards to avoid and an array of dials to monitor. A consummate simulation and, because it entered the market virtually free of competition, one that found great popularity.
(Digital Integration - 1985)
After months of pre-release advertising, Digital Integration's follow up to Fighter Pilot finally reached the shops in time for Christmas 1985. Much to the dismay of players, it featured the hated Lenslok security system, but game itself was sublime. It puts you in control of an attack helicopter on a series of deadly missons over enemy territory. The graphics are vector-style and work very well. As you would expect from DI, the aeronautics are spot-on and there's a grin-inducing variety of weapons to play with. Untold fun is to be had popping up over a hillside and dispatching an unsuspecting tank with a Hellfire missile.
4. TURBO ESPRIT
(Durell - 1986)
A racing game with a shoot 'em up angle. You are a secret agent at the wheel of a Lotus Esprit Turbo, out to foil a gang of drug dealers. They stock up their four delivery cars with heroin from a patrolling van, and you have to track them down, then ram or blast them off the road. Bad guy hit-cars are out to get you, so you need to keep an eye on your rear view mirror. The graphics are great and there are four different cities to explore. Be careful how you drive, though. Mow down any civilians and you'll pick up penalty points. Thanks to this latter feature, you can even play the game as a sort of Carmageddon, wreaking as much anti-social mayhem as possible.
5. FIGHTER PILOT
(Digital Integration - 1984)
In the Spectrum's early days, the only flight sims involved civil aircraft and featured slow, simple graphics. Then Digital Integration, a maker of military flight simulators, threw its hat into the ring with Fighter Pilot, which put players at the controls of an F-15 Eagle…and featured slow, simple graphics. The landscape is virtually featureless and there's not a heat-seeking missile to be seen, but the dogfighting is frenetic and there's some tricky taking-off and landing to master. Although it looks positively spartan compared to later games, Fighter Pilot was one of the most technically accurate flying experiences released during the 8-bit era.
Combat Lynx (Durell - 1984)
To my knowledge, this was the first helicopter sim to appear on the Spectrum, although it's not a flight simulator in the traditional sense, because you view your chopper in the third-person, rather than from the cockpit. You must defend your bases and provide support to ground forces. The 3D graphics work well and there's plenty of entertaining gunplay. Another early classic from Mike Richardson of Turbo Esprit and Harrier Attack fame.
Dambusters (US Gold - 1985)
It's 1943 and you are flying deep into German territory to deliver the bouncing bombs that will destroy the Moehne, Eder and Sorpe dams. Don't get to thinking you can just jump into your Lancaster and start tearing at the Hun, though. There's extensive training to be done before you're allowed to lead your own mission. Once airborne, you can switch between different crew members' screens, enabling you to plot your course, pilot the plane, shoot down enemy fighters and, finally, drop the bomb. Much more original and involving than many flight sims.
F-15 Strike Eagle (Microprose - 1986)
In 1982, before he went on to achieve success with the Civilisation series, Sid Meier was a systems analyst in the States. He met a US Air Force pilot called Bill Stealey at a business meeting in Las Vegas, and they discussed their shared passion for flying. They ended up forming Microprose, a company that specialised in simulations, and went on to produce some great games. F-15 Strike Eagle allows you to shoot down fighters over Hanoi or drop bombs in Libya, all in the name of freedom and the American way. The ground is represented by a sort of moving grid, which detracts from the realism, but the flying experience is convincing enough and there's an arsenal of deadly weapons to unleash on Johnny foreigner.
Full Throttle (Micromega - 1984)
Having already written one motorcycle game for Micromega, you'd be forgiven for thinking Mervyn Escourt was a bike nut, but apparently he'd never even ridden one before working on Full Throttle. You get to race on ten of the world's top circuits on your 500cc motorcycle, competing against 39 other riders. Should you bash into another bike, rather than both of you tumbling into the verge, you merely lose speed, while the other guy races into the distance. If this doesn't turn you purple with rage, you're a better man than I. A compelling racing game, though, and certainly the best two-wheeler of its time.
Pole Position (Atarisoft - 1985)
When it finally reached the shops in early 1985, there were grumbles about this arcade conversion arriving too late. And plenty of kids choked on their Slush Puppies when they saw the £7.99 price tag. Still, it was a tidy enough version of the Atari original, and had it come out a year earlier, people would have been eulogising about it. It had little competition at the time, but holds its own in the canon of Spectrum driving games.
Silent Service (Microprose - 1986)
Silent Service sees you captaining a US submarine operating in the Pacific theatre during World War II. Like all Microprose games, it's absorbing and well-researched, and does its best to recreate the tense life of a submariner. Bizarrely, it was also a bestseller in Japan.
Southern Belle (Hewson - 1985)
Who didn't dream of being a steam engine driver as a boy? Well here's your chance. This game puts you in control of the Southern Belle, a steam locomotive on an hour-long journey from London Victoria to Brighton. Being a choo-choo, there's not much steering to be done, but you have to maintain the coal and water supply, and keep to the schedule. The graphics are good and train enthusiasts should have fun, but for the rest of us there's probably not enough to do.
The simulator made its first arcade appearance in 1975, with Atari's Night Driver, which used scrolling pillars of diminishing size to create the impression of movement and perspective. By the early 1980s, sound and graphics had improved immeasurably, and some classic titles were storming the arcades, most notably Atari's Pole Position.
The other popular simulator around this time placed the player at the controls of an aircraft. The first home computer version was Sublogic's ingeniously-titled Flight Simulator, released for the black-and-white TRS-80 in 1980. Bill Gates liked it so much, he bought the company and developed the game into a successful series of the same name.
The Spectrum got in on the act in 1982, with Flight Simulation, a staid affair, concerned with landing and taking off in a light aircraft. At the time, however, putting a crude representation of flight into your living room was nothing short of witchcraft.
What people really wanted, though, was high-speed aerobatic mayhem, preferably involving air-to-air combat. This was a little way off, but a step in the right direction came with Digital Integration's Fighter Pilot (1984). The gameplay was rather dry, but as a technically-accurate representation of how a fighter aircraft handles, it was a triumph. Within the next few years, representations of airborne combat really hit their stride with the likes of Durell's Combat Lynx, the first real helicopter simulator, Spitfire 40 from Mirrorsoft and Sid Meier's excellent F15 Strike Eagle.
A couple of early titles - Grand Prix from Britannia and 3D Speed Duel by dK'Tronics - attempted to bring motor racing to the Spectrum, but neither impressed. Then in 1983, Micromega released 3D Deathchase, a first-person racer set in an increasingly dense forest (no doubt inspired by that year's hit film Return of the Jedi). It was a fast, breathless, rollercoaster ride of a game, bringing breakneck 3D thrills into peoples' homes over a decade before dedicated graphics hardware would make such sights commonplace.
Psion's Chequered Flag was graphically and technically accomplished, but a little dull as you were the only car on the track. Back in the arcades, Pole Position was still the racing game people were queueing up to play, and an official Spectrum version was keenly anticipated. It was not until the arcade original was virtually forgotten that Atarisoft released the conversion. It came far too late and was not quite as good as many had hoped.
One of the Spectrum's finest racing games arrived, not in a car, but on a bike. It was Micromega who again championed two-wheeled action with Full Throttle (1984). What it lacked in colour, it made up for by being the fastest, toughest track racing game so far.
A joy of playing racing games in the arcade was handling a steering wheel - something hard to replicate on the Spectrum. Spirit Games' Formula One made a brave attempt with its infamous plastic yellow 'ashtray', which was supposed to be rolled over the keyboard like a steering wheel. The game was heavily hyped and much was expected, but it was a major disappointment, more due to the abominable control system than the graphics. Following controversy over pre-release orders, Spirit vanished into the ether, to rise again as budget label Mastertronic.
There were precious few ocean-bound simulators on the Spectrum, save few early submarine games - the best of which was Sid Meier's Silent Service. In the late Eighties, this genre was explored further, with Hewson's Ocean Conqueror and Grandslam's Hunt for Red October the best of the bunch.
The best of the rest
A.C.E. (Cascade - 1986)
Cascade made its name with Cassette 50, a collection of dismal games contributed by home programmers. It sold well enough to finance the creation of this fast, fun combat simulator. Unlike Fighter Pilot, A.C.E. is more concerned with high-speed action than technical accuracy. The graphics are speedy and smooth, and it's a great place to start for those who just want to blast enemy aircraft out of the sky.
Spitfire 40 (Mirrorsoft - 1985)
A classic World War II sim that puts you in the cockpit of a Supermarine Spitfire as you soar above Southern England, blasting German aircraft out of the sky. Unlike previous games of this ilk, you can create a pilot character and guide him through a career of dogfights, medals, promotions and untimely death at the hands of a Messerschmitt's machineguns. Tally ho!