The Spectrum top five, the best of the rest, and a brief history of the genre.
(Ocean - 1985)
Early football games tended to involve manoeuvering numbered blocks around the screen. Slowly. Everything changed with Matchday. For the first time, large animated characters passed, dribbled, shot, and took throw-ins and corners. To create the player graphics, author Jon Ritman cut the snouts off the bears from his earlier game Bear Bovver, but who cares? Matchday was a godsend to sports-mad gamers and the begetter of all future footie games. Realising he needed help with his graphics, Ritman joined forces with old friend Bernie Drummond to form the dynamic programming duo responsible for Head Over Heels, Batman and Matchday II.
(Imagine - 1985)
Having invented the athletics video game with Track and Field, Konami released the follow-up at a time when Ocean Software was buying up and converting its licenses under the newly-acquired Imagine label. If there was one type of game Ocean could be counted on to do well, it was sports simulations and Hypersports is no exception. As well as the traditional running, jumping and throwing events, there are other activities such as shooting and swimming. The graphics are superb and the gameplay addictive, making it probably the most accomplished multi-event sports game made for the Spectrum, even if all that keyboard bashing does wear you out.
3. DALEY THOMPSON'S DECATHLON
(Ocean - 1984)
Following the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics came a succession of games looking to cash-in on the success of Konami's arcade hit Track and Field. The Spectrum had already seen a few missteps before Ocean brought out Daley Thompson's Decathlon, which topped the Christmas charts on the back of the moustachioed athlete's gold medal success. As Daley, you must compete in the 100 metres, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 metres, 110 metre hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1500 metres. The ruin of many a rubber keyboard, this is a title forever associated with the Spectrum's golden era. Play it on a PC keyboard and watch those world records tumble!
4. DALEY THOMPSON'S SUPERTEST (Ocean - 1985)
In the same way that Konami followed up Track and Field with top-class sequel Hypersports, so Ocean succeeded the best-selling Decathlon with the excellent Supertest. This time around, the events include shooting, cycling, ski slalom and even a penalty shoot-out. There's a nice balance of different skills required to master this eclectic mix, but make no mistake, your digits will be sore by the end of it all. As you'd expect from Ocean, the graphics are high-class and it proves to be a worthy successor to its famous forerunner, even if it lacks the first game's cohesion, charm and tie-in appeal.
5. MATCH POINT
(Psion - 1984)
For two weeks each summer, Wimbledon dominates the sports headlines and thousands of children pull a dusty racquet from the cupboard and head for the park. Thousands more are too lazy to leave the house and would rather play tennis on their computer, so it's surprising that the Spectrum's only tennis game of note is Matchpoint. Although clearly a descendant of Pong, it has attractive graphics and some great rallies can be had if you come to terms with the auto-changeover feature. If even the prospect of exercising your fingers is too daunting, you can sit back and let the computer play out an exhibition match for your entertainment.
Cricket got short shrift on the Spectrum, and it wasn't until later in the decade that it was given much more than lip service. Here's what little was on offer in the early years.
Why aren't boxing games in the beat 'em up section? Good question. Although both are crunchingly violent, they are different in style, as the selection below hopefully demonstrates.
World Series Baseball (Imagine - 1985)
Baseball may be the American national pastime, but there's little interest in it on this side of the Atlantic. Get to grips with the rules, though, and you'll find this a wonderful game. The graphics are great and in two-player mode it provides a different challenge to the usual sports fare.
The sports game dates back to the first commercially successful arcade machine, Pong. Its simple bat-and-all premise captured the public imagination and created the videogames industry that we know and love today.
When its creator Nolan Bushnell persuaded a local bar owner to install a prototype Pong machine, he was uncertain whether it would prove popular. Several days later, the irate bar owner asked him to get rid of the game because it was broken. When Bushnell examined the machine, he discovered the reason it wouldn't work: it was jammed full of coins. He concluded that maybe videogames would be worth the trouble after all.
Sports video games moved beyond Pong clones in the late-1970s. In 1978, Atari released American Football in the US arcades, which proved popular with its domestic audience. There were ice hockey games, too, but these sports were alien for overseas tastes. It was not until 1983 that the next internationally successful title was released.
Konami's Track and Field was the original button-bashing athletics game. The format is now familiar: you compete in a number of events and make your athlete run faster by hammering at a pair buttons. It was a massive hit and the following year's Los Angeles Olympics made it more successful still.
Imitators quickly arrived on the Spectrum, the best being Ocean's Daley Thompson's Decathlon. In 1985, Konami released Hypersports, the sequel to Track and Field and Imagine snapped up the rights to convert it to the Spectrum.
Among the also-rans were mediocre titles such as Melbourne House's Sports Hero and Database's Micro Olympics, as well as tosh like CRL's Olympics and Mitec's Olympicon. None could compete with Ocean's slickly-made and well-marketed products.
It's not all about athletics though. Sport is a broad church and just about every imaginable activity was eventually catered for on the Spectrum - especially our national sport.
In the early years, football games were mostly limited to those concerned with management, or were feeble arcade-style affairs like Artic's World Cup, which was originally released in 1982, then shamelessly re-released four years later under the guise of a new game). Ocean's Match Day was the Spectrum's first convincing football game and it remained the benchmark for sometime - only bettered by its sequel in fact.
As programming techniques improved, games became increasingly playable and varied. There were simulations of cricket, tennis, squash, darts, golf, pool, snooker, American football, skiing, horse racing, showjumping and many more.
By the mid-Eighties, however, titles that weren't tied-in with licensing deals, or rushed out under a budget label began to lose favour - more with the software houses than the public. Not that sports games died off. They either diversified or came in disguise, as with titles like Combat School or Hyperbowl.
Frank Bruno's Boxing (Elite - 1985)
Released around the same time as Gremlin's Rocco, this game won by a knock out. As Big Frank, you must battle your way past eight opponents to win the title. The graphics look strangely un-Spectrum-like, but are undeniably good. The variety of offensive moves and fighting tactics make it an accomplished piece of pugilistic fun.
Rocco (Gremlin - 1985)
A similar but inferior game to Frank Bruno's Boxing. The graphics have a cheery, cartoon-like quality, but the fact that your moves are limited to a left or right attack, and a block make it no more than mildly diverting.
Barry McGuigan Championship Boxing (Activision - 1985)
This game takes you beyond the ring and has you train up a boxer who will hopefully reach the same heights as the squeaky-voiced Ulsterman. The fighters possess a number of attributes that can be honed using different training methods. The game claimed to be unique because "It focuses on the art of the sport. Style, training and strategy are emphasised over slugging ability" - and it's hard to argue with that.
American Football (Argus Press - 1984)
Anyone who's watched American Football knows that it's a short, stop-start game, dragged out to an interminable length by time-outs, dancing girls and marching bands. Thankfully, none of this time-wasting razzmatazz is present here - just the game's tactical elements. It is played as a series of set moves, with the player choosing his team's strategy before each phase. Don't be put off by the subject matter. This is an engrossing and exciting game which might even change your views of the real thing.
World Series Basketball (Imagine - 1985)
An unfamiliar sports game featuring lots of animated characters moving about the screen is a recipe for gaming disaster. Thankfully, Imagine (in their Ocean-owned guise, at least) were masters of the sports simulation, and they pulled this one off successfully. The graphics are large and lively, the rules are idiot-proof, and the six-minute playing time means your attention span is never overly taxed.
Test Match (CRL - 1983)
This game set a low bar for Spectrum cricket games. Choose your team, flip the coin, then bat or bowl. In the field, control is limited to changing the bowling, while your batting involvement consists of choosing whether batsmen run or not. The stickman graphics are simple but effective, and enthusiasts might find the use of real cricketers adds to the atmosphere. Sadly, due to the way that the game virtually plays itself, appeal is limited.
Ashes (Pulsonic - 1984)
In 1984, a company called Pulsonic released a clutch of truly awful games in the belief that there was easy money to be made from peddling rubbish. One of these titles was Ashes, which was possibly the best of the bunch. It follows a similar pattern to CRL's Test Match, but there is the added feature of being able to position your players on the pitch. Again, for fans of the sport only - and undiscerning ones at that.
Howzat! (Wyvern - 1984)
Not much change here, I'm afraid. In Howzat you get to pick your team from a squad of players and position your fielders, but once the action begins your involvement is limited. Better than some efforts, which isn't saying much.
Graham Gooch's Test Cricket (Audiogenic - 1986)
Finally, a cricket game where you play the shots and bowl the balls. There are two modes of play: simulation (where you deal with the tactical side of the match) and arcade (which allows you to bowl those yorkers and thump those sixes). There's nothing remarkable about it, but compared to what went before it's bally marvellous.
Americans have a strange idea of what constitutes sport and many of their games aren't ideal fodder for conversion to the home computer. However, with the advent of Channel 4 in the early 80s, these alien pastimes received greater coverage in Britain, and a demand was created for home computer spin-offs.
Be it middle-class girls winning rosettes or desperate old men blowing the housekeeping money down the bookies, horses have always been a part of competition and sport. Therefore, the Spectrum would have been shirking its duties if it hadn't catered for the horse-loving community.
The Sport of Kings (Mastertronic - 1986)
Fancy a flutter on the gee-gees, but don't have the cash, the bottle or the legal entitlement to do the real thing? Well, don't worry, because in this enjoyable budget title from Mastertronic you can visit the race meetings, study the card and place your bets. Although the novelty of winning or losing non-existent cash can wear thin, the game well designed and good fun for a while.
Grand National (Elite - 1985)
Released to coincide with the world's greatest steeplechase, Grand National puts you in the saddle around the Aintree circuit. The combination of top-down and side-on views works well. You need to pace your race carefully, watching your energy levels, avoiding other horses and using the whip wisely. You can even place bets on the race, which is surely unethical for a jockey.
Showjump (IMS - 1984)
If you're called Francesca and a member of the pony club then you'll love this. You must guide your horse and rider about the course, leaping jumps and trying to avoid too many faults. Like Grand National, it makes effective use of a split screen to display the action. Those who aren't fans of showjumping might find it tedious, but enthusiasts will find plenty to enjoy here.
Racing Predictions (Buffer Micro - 1984)
This is a gambling utility designed to help you pick winners down the bookies. You enter information from the Sporting Life Weekender relating to form, jockey weight, course and going. After some highly complex (?) calculations, the logical order in which the horses should trot in is presented to you. From memory, it didn't work too badly, so give it a go (if the Weekender still exists that is).
The golf game has come a long way since its Spectrum days, with image-capture replicating actual players' swings, and real-life courses reproduced in precise detail. In the days when Nick, Seve and Jack topped the leaderboard, things were slightly less sophisticated. Here are those that made the cut.
Handicap Golf (CRL - 1984)
Probably the first half-decent golf game to appear on the Spectrum. Compared to later efforts it looks extremely dated, but at the time of its release the competition was pretty gruesome. Don't let the fact it's written in BASIC put you off, because it's an accomplished little game.
Leaderboard (US Gold - 1986)
Surely the king of the genre for many years, Leaderboard provided the kind of 3D perspective we take for granted nowadays. The game can be played at three levels of skill: novice, amateur and professional. As you advance, the wind comes into play and the islands on which the greens lie become progressively smaller. As with most golf games, it's ludicrously difficult, so you're more likely to spend your time shanking the ball into the drink than lifting trophies.
Nick Faldo's Open (Argus Press - 1984)
Until Leaderboard this was the champion golf sim on the market. The upper half of the screen shows a top-down view of the course and below are a variety of sub-screens, including an image of your golfer, plus details of your distance from the hole and your selected club. The graphics are clear and you have good control of your strokes. It is only let down by the putting, where the lack of a close-up view makes it a lottery.
Avoid the perils of flooded urinals and overpriced beer by enjoying some of the pub's finer pastimes on the Spectrum.
180 (Mastertronic - 1986)
Forget the rest, because this is the Phil Taylor of darts games. You are presented with a depiction of a board and disembodied hand holding a dart. The hand shakes like it's George Best on the oche, so being accurate takes practice. When your opponents throw, you are treated to a wonderful third-person view of them 'chucking their spears' before a backdrop of pints being pulled and urinating dogs. Great fun.
Jackpot (CRL - 1983)
Okay, so it's not really a sport, but what trip to the pub would be complete without a quick go on the fruity? This simulator has all the features of a traditional fruit machine, like spin, hold and nudge, and you start with 200 credits to be frittered away, ten at a time. Written in BASIC, but it does the job.
Pool (CDS - 1984)
One of the first pool games on the Spectrum. The graphics are colourful and effective and the control system simple. It uses the standard top-down view and a cursor on the side of the table to control cueing. Spawned numerous, inferior imitators.
Video Pool (OCP - 1984)
Not a well-known title, but a fine pool simulator all the same. As well as direction, shot strength and ball spin, there's the ability to play trick shots and variations on the standard rules, including a 'pot the balls in order' option.
Steve Davis Snooker (CDS - 1985)
Having already covered pool, CDS took on the game's big brother and a very presentable job it did too. What elevates it above the herd are some great control options: screw, top and side spin, plus a nifty crosshair aiming system.