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How Retro is Too Retro? (or, 11 BBC Micro Games You Must* Play)

By James Langston

*Disclaimer: When I say that you must play these games,  I’m not going to for one minute suggest that these are the tip of an iceberg made of hundreds of quality old-school classics that have been erroneously forgotten by gaming history. Even the thickest layer of nostalgic Vaseline can’t disguise the fact that a lot of games during the early days of 8-bit British computers were either:

  • Broken (or at least badly programmed)
  • An artist’s impression of a videogame they’d seen elsewhere
  • So difficult and linear that were designed for a robot to complete

Out of the games that avoided any of those sins, the other bracket most Beeb games fall into (which is a big gravity well of a bracket) contains blatant arcade game rip-offs.

As much as I love my 32K cassette-loading machines, we really did need Japan to show us how fun worked; thank the lord that Nintendo came along with a plumber and a monkey. Having said that, here are 11 gems that really shouldn’t have disappeared into the Ctrl+Break of obsolescence.

(Accuracy note: I actually had the inferior Acorn Electron as a kid. But practically the entire game library was released on both systems; only the most sophisticated games required two different versions / ports)

Another quick aside before the list starts: I know emulators are normally bad things, but in the case of the Acorn, the hardware, and the majority of the software, is not actively pursued in terms of copyrights etc., and the chances of having a working BBC Micro thirty-two years later is highly unlikely; at one point we had 3 Acorn Electrons in the house, all of which had what I now understand to be RAM failure. Therefore, the (sadly quite small) Acorn/Beeb community just assumes you’re going to need to emulate these things to play them. And to do so, head here for BeebEm, and to the Stairway to Hell for the game library (also thanks to STH for the box scans).

 

Boffin

Boffin_Box

Developed by Paul O’Malley

Published by Addictive Software, 1985

First game in the list, and already we’re hit with an Eighties British Videogame Plot™. A scientist must navigate a series of caves by collecting all the unlucky horseshoes in said cave and then reaching the resident guardian owl.

I mean… I don’t even know where to start with that. If you thought Dark Souls’ lore was obtuse, at least that doesn’t feel like “here’s a load of random objects I threw in the scanner”.

Boffin is a single-screen platformer, which was mega-common in the day, as scrolling a larger map in 32K of RAM was a bit of a nightmare. Like most other platformers of this era, the game relies on pixel-perfect platform parkour, as opposed to weaving through baddies, Mario-style. There’s one neat element that makes it stand out from a lot of other platformers of the era: Boffin can only fall a certain distance before dying (with a eye rolling “death sequence” that will cause all 5-year-olds in the area  to have a giggling fit), and so he uses his opened umbrella as a parachute (THIS IS NOT SCIENCE). The downside is that you can’t jump with your umbrella open, and it’ll get stuck in narrow gaps, or caught on ledges; therefore, navigating narrow passageways and drops is a case of “jump; open umbrella, land, close umbrella OPEN UMBRELLA AGAIN QUICK FUCKSAKE”.

 Er, I'm a bit stuck. Hello? Little help? (Horseshoes and Petri dishes, in case you're wondering)

Er, I'm a bit stuck. Hello? Little help? (Horseshoes and Petri dishes, in case you're wondering)

Of course, like most games of the time, it quickly becomes next-to-impossible - in fact maybe “actually impossible”; after a glitch that gave me 200 extra lives instead of the usual 1 at the end of the level, I still couldn’t finish the whole thing. But it’s still loveable, due to its unique art style (including an odd hi-res graphics mode which upsets a lot of emulators), a seemingly random collection of objects that avoids the traditional fantasy/space stereotypes, and the best animated/scariest giant tarantula you’ll ever see in 3 colours.

 Sorry for the .gif, but you had to see the FRICKIN' TARANTULA

Sorry for the .gif, but you had to see the FRICKIN' TARANTULA

Best bit: The end of the level requires you to step onto a hydraulic ram, which usually means ceiling-based death. But the guardian owl is in arm’s reach.

Holds-Up-Today-o-Rating: 3/10 if I’m honest. But give it a quick go.

See someone playing it here

 

Caveman Capers

CavemanCapers_Box

Developed by Crofts Elliot Sobell & Blake

Published by Icon Software, 1985

Also on ZX Spectrum and... MSX apparently

Hey you! Young person! Are you enjoying  that endless runner on your mobile telephone machine? Well, it’s nothing special (and you’re nothing special, despite what your beloved Disney Channel would tell you). It’s just a second-rate Caveman Capers!

You’re a caveman skateboarding on a turtle, and you’ve got to get back home because your “hot” wife says dinner’s ready. This calls for 60 levels (apparently 60, having done some research on the internet - I haven’t finished it. No, fuck you) of hopping over ditches, rocks, logs, bin bags (probably not actually bin bags), frogs, and ducking under tree snakes, pterodactyls, and the dumbest looking brachiosaur ever committed to pixels.

 Right, so the river and the field are in the background, and there's a load of snow between them. That's why there's a white background AND a scrolling background.

Right, so the river and the field are in the background, and there's a load of snow between them. That's why there's a white background AND a scrolling background.

To be honest, there’s not much to this. You can shift Ogg the caveman and Kickstart the turtle across the screen a bit, and the rest is jumping. The first time you play it, you won’t get past the snakes (there’s a rhythm to their bobbing out of the trees which is very difficult to time). And even after a few goes, the super-landscape ratio of the main screen, and the slightly disappointing jump height, mean you’ll never feel confident that you’re going to successfully jump over anything that’s resting on the ground. But you’ll probably forgive the game, if anything because of the face of the dinosaur with the long neck that stretches in from the right-hand side of the screen. Honest.

 I've fallen. And fuck you Brachiosaur for thinking that it's so funny.

I've fallen. And fuck you Brachiosaur for thinking that it's so funny.

Quick question I have: This game does the thing a lot of old computer games did: For the high score table, you slide your cursor along an alphabet to enter your name, as if you’ve only got a D-Pad. Why can’t I just type it in using the keyboard?

Best bit: If not the brachiosaur in general, then I’d have to say reaching the phonebox on level 10. I think. I haven’t been able to do this in the time I’ve been writing the article.

Holds-Up-Today-o-Rating: 5/10 – still a popular genre, but there are some graphical limitations.

See someone playing it here

 

Chuckie Egg

ChuckieEgg_Box

Developed and Published by  A&F, 1983

Also on EVERY 8-BIT COMPUTER EVER

If you needed proof that Chuckie Egg is a classic, Rhod Gilbert recently referenced it on TV as his “most recently-played video game”. Rhod Gilbert. I rest my case.

Like Boffin above (unless you’re reading this in a funny order), this is a single-screen platformer. If you look closely (read: not very closely at all) you can see that there’s definitely a Donkey Kong influence. However (and I’m keeping my voice down for this) Chuckie Egg might be a superior game.

For the first time so far, the plot sort-of makes sense: You (Hen House Harry, who is no doubt familiar to WWE fans – think about it) work at a free-range poultry farm. Your job is to go collect all the eggs. It moves at a fair old pace; Harry zips around mega fast, and can climb ladders (gasp!) – you can even stunt-jump off/on them if necessary. There’s even a nice tonal quality to Harry’s running / jumping / climbing that makes everything sound like experimental electronica.

 No caption can explain how fun it is to trot around this level.

No caption can explain how fun it is to trot around this level.

What’s more, this game throws a unique (for the time) curveball at you. There are only 8 levels, technically. You’ll need to avoid the big blue bird things as you go round the level; they each follow a set path, so it’s not unfair. All the while, a giant yellow beaked… thing… sits caged in the top left corner. Then level 9 appears. Initially, you’ll have that Kong feeling;  this is just level 1, but faster. Time to go home, surely. Then you realise that Turkeyzilla has escaped from its cage. The big yellow fella can fly, and cares not for platform collision. Suddenly, the same platform layouts you’ve mastered have to be replayed in a completely different manner.

 Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear.

Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear.

This is one of the few games that gets close to Nintendo’s feel of a game; despite the linear progression, you do always want one more go. It’s your fault you messed up, rather than some stodgy game design.

Best bit: Level 8, as if to prove that it was inspired by Donkey Kong, has a Ziggurat-style layout as per DK’s last stand, with a big row of bonus points to wade through. But level 9 happens after that.

Holds-Up-Today-o-Rating: 8/10 – A bit retro, but it’s just fun, dood.

See someone playing it here

 

Citadel

Citadel_Box

Developed by Michael Jakobsen

Published by Superior Software, 1985

Clarification: This game is in this list, essentially, on behalf of all of the flick-screen puzzle platform adventures that existed on the BBC Micro and all the other 8-bit computers. This style of game’s popularity can be traced back to Jet Set Willy (which you’ll discover is not on this list, as - and I’m sorry to break it to retro-heads everywhere that use this as some cultural reference point – it’s an unplayable piece of crap). All of these games feature a drinking game/bingo card of features:

  • A character lost in an alien world/magic castle/space station, with no specific way of defending themselves
  • Single screens, each with their own, “hilarious” name in the status bar, that flick over as you reach their borders
  • An illogically-scattered collection of incongruous items that are all used in specific puzzles, which basically means dragging a bunch of objects next to a barrier and hammering the “use” button until hopefully something happens
  • A punishing time/health limit, given that you probably have to finish the whole game in one go – no save points here

These games needed the help of a certain bounty hunter / vampire slayer, and eventually evolved into what the young now call Metroidvanias.

So Citadel then. Firstly let’s absorb the loader screen:

 Shitadel Shitadel Shitadel Shitadel - Shoopeereeorr Shoftware Preshentsh Shitadel

Shitadel Shitadel Shitadel Shitadel - Shoopeereeorr Shoftware Preshentsh Shitadel

Yes, the speech synthesiser says Shitadel. Yes, the music programmer tried to do Frère Jacques, but he doesn’t really understand how music works so it starts falling apart.

Why’s this even in the list then? These games are notoriously unfair and difficult. You could spend weeks just trying to imagine what would be on the other side of a locked door, if only – IF ONLY – you could find the specific key. But, as with the best games in the genre, you get a Dark Souls-like satisfaction every time you find the correct use for an item, and it disappears from your inventory on its way to the Pick-Up Afterlife. Citadel is regarded as the most well-rounded of the lot. The locations were at least interesting, if a little blocky. The hooded fella was properly scary. And in a rare moment of future-predicting equality gestures, you could be a male or female hero.

 I think he might've seen me. And I picked the Girl option, as you can tell by the blue face.

I think he might've seen me. And I picked the Girl option, as you can tell by the blue face.

See also: Quest (Jet-pack mechanic), Ricochet (super fast), Castle Quest (scrolling), Palace of Magic (actually finishable), and any of the Peter Scott games (red yellow AND cyan, together at last).

Best bit: Picking up the red and pink key, and knowing where the red and pink door is. None of that is a euphemism.

Holds-Up-Today-o-Rating: 4/10, but add 3 points if you enjoyed VVVVVV.

See someone playing it here

 

Codename: Droid (Stryker’s Run Part 2)

CodenameDroid_Box

Developed by Nick Chamberlain and Martin Edmonson

Published by Superior Software/Acornsoft, 1987

If your surname was Stryker, there’s probably not a lot you can do when it comes to naming your son. So, John it is then

Stryker’s Run – the original game – was rubbish. John Stryker trotted from left to right, avoiding bullets, and… not a lot else.

Its sequel however is a much better game; a full-on space adventure, with a zig-zagging underground level system, and intelligent bad guys that actually felt like part of a pre-existing world, as opposed to a stuck-on “we need a baddie here” label. Sort of like a Metroid-meets-Contra, Johnny boy lands on the planet of the Volgans, in order to grab all the plutonium rods and make his way to the enemy base deep underground, in order to nick their super weapon-o-spaceship.

 Mr. Volgan's about 10ms away from a mine-related death, there. I hope he doesn't... MINED

Mr. Volgan's about 10ms away from a mine-related death, there. I hope he doesn't... MINED

It has many things that a lot of its predecessors wouldn’t have considered, thanks to the lateness of the NES’s arrival. Health packs that allow you to choose a sensible time to revive yourself. Jet Pack sections that, admittedly are a little clunky, but a welcome diversion from climbing ropes. Mines that can be deployed, and left to cause damage while you’re safely out of sight. A pause screen that contains a wide variety of information including a – gasp! - map system. And enemies that shoot on sight, as opposed to “all the time, just in case”. In fact, they might even have a realistic and limited ammo supply.

 This little robot is not as cute as R2-D2, that's for sure. At this point, the game gets super-obscure.

This little robot is not as cute as R2-D2, that's for sure. At this point, the game gets super-obscure.

The game does still suffer from a couple of old-school flaws though; it’s possible to run out of jet-pack fuel, or mis-use lift cards, and therefore snooker yourself into being unable to progress. But this game is well worth a look, with its beautiful graphics (you’ll wonder why they ever needed more than 4 colours), and a stirring title tune, at a time where 3-second jingles were the norm.

Best bit: Watching Reaching the supply crate on the third level of the surface, and discovering it’s full of lift passes and health packs.

Holds-Up-Today-o-Rating: 5/10. You’ll really enjoy it the first time, but…

See someone playing it here

 

Elite

Elite_Box

Developed by David Braben and Ian Bell

Published by Acornsoft, 1984

Also on everything else including the NES for crying out loud

Such is a phenomenal power the original Elite holds that, upon hearing Elite: Dangerous had a multiplayer leaning, many superfans bailed out and went back to the original.

This game is 31 years old. To say it was ahead of its time is the understatement of, well... the tri-decade. Only in the last ten years have other games got close to the persistent-feeling open world (galaxy). You start off as an inter-galactic trader, sat in Lave space station. From there, you’re free to build up your own space-monopoly, trading various goods with cultures thousands of light years away. The choice made available to you is astounding for the time – you can go on secret missions if you want to, and being part of the exclusive club that has this offer feels no less epic than joining Skyrim’s Winterhold College of Magic does today. Your universal influence is recognised and reacted to accordingly – as is your criminal record, with a logical police force that recognise when you start breaking the rules, and stretch out their long arm of the law in a forceful but entirely believable way. There’s also the properly scary Witch Space; find yourself dragged out of Hyperspace and you might be in serious trouble.

 The planet Lave (the transparent thing on the left), and the space-station in its orbit. Good luck landing back in that thing...

The planet Lave (the transparent thing on the left), and the space-station in its orbit. Good luck landing back in that thing...

I’m doing a bad job of explaining how amazing this game was at the time. The new MMO revamp, Elite: Dangerous, probably does a better job than that. The angular designs you can see out of your nVidia GeForce GTX Titan X? Anyone who has played the original can recognise the iconic shapes: The Cobra; The Sidewinder; The Viper used by the police force; the terrifying sight of the alien Thargoids heading for you.

 The planet Leesti - which is apparently a big eye. Those two abstract triangles are other ships. HONESTLY THIS IS COOL

The planet Leesti - which is apparently a big eye. Those two abstract triangles are other ships. HONESTLY THIS IS COOL

Minus points? If I’m honest, the game is kind-of obtuse, despite a gigantic list of controls, commands and instructions. You’ll probably have trouble finding your first space station, and any pirates that meet you on the way will almost certainly kill you to death. Then there’s docking. The space station spins in a 2001: A Space Odyssey style. Fail to line up your ship at the same level and your extremities will be shown in a Spaceship Learner Driver video for years to come.

A whole galaxy is waiting for you to flog it stuff. Get out there and do it.

I won’t though; I can’t even dock in the space stations correctly.

Best bit: Purchasing a Fuel Scoop. The realisation that you’ll never have to stop at a petrol station again, with only a slight concern of burning your bum on a nearby sun.

Holds-Up-Today-o-Rating: 7/10 – if you can live with the simple wireframe graphics.

See someone playing it here

 

Exile

Exile_Box

Developed by Peter Irvin and Jeremy Smith

Published by Superior Software/Acornsoft, 1988

Also available on Commodore 64 / Amiga / CD32

Mike Finn is a much better name than John Stryker, that’s for sure. Mike has been sent to the planet Phoebus to rescue the crew of a spaceship, left stranded with a nutcase genetic engineer.

One of the last great games on the system, this really does push the Beeb to its limit. Any extra RAM or extra oomph from a BBC Master is used to provide a gigantic, smoothly-scrolling map (which uses – WARNING: BUZZWORD APPROACHING – procedural generation, to overcome technical limitations; the world is too big to actually store in memory and therefore has to be manufactured by the game), and a wide range of sampled speech, including several painful screams. You’ll hear these. A lot. In fact, the first time, you’ll probably jam Mikey into a wall a few times just for the LOLs.

 This is your ship. It's very difficuly to "ARGH!" here

This is your ship. It's very difficuly to "ARGH!" here

Confession: Due to the required oomph the game needed, I never got to play this at the time; I just had to assume it was amazing by the amount of advertising space given to it. But seeing it now I can see how clever it was running on a Beeb; advanced enough to go as far as being ported to Commodore’s short-lived CD-based console, with only a graphical upgrade to differ between 32KB and 700MB.

 That birdie's following me now. At least it's not shooting me. I don't know what I'm going...

That birdie's following me now. At least it's not shooting me. I don't know what I'm going...

If you do play the BBC Micro version, you’ll hopefully appreciate that the “puzzle adventure” is a lot more organic than the likes of Citadel above, if not the clunky keyboard controls (it might be worth binding a controller up for this).

Best bit: Er, I dunno. Someone write in.

Holds-Up-Today-o-Rating: 7/10 actually.

See someone playing it here

 

Imogen

Developed and Published by Micro Power, 1986

Imogen_Box

Time for a more epic story. Imogen is a wizard who has amnesia, on account of his having transformed into a dragon, in order to defeat another dragon. Because of his mental instability/magical prowess combination, he’s placed into a puzzle-y dungeon. You know, for his own sake. The plan is, by solving the puzzles, he’ll get his brain back online.

 Way Out? Thanks sign.

Way Out? Thanks sign.

Firstly: Imogen is a dude. You can tell this from the beard. However, Imogen is a girl’s name. As if it wasn’t bad enough going a bit mad, people are going to take the piss out of him anyway.

However, this can be forgiven by the game itself, made up of a selection of small puzzle “levels”. These are great for many reasons; the first being that they are unrelated and therefore can be tackled in any order. Secondly, the puzzles are actually logical, rather than the item-jamming that exists in the likes of Citadel. Most important of all, you solve the puzzles by transforming into animals, like a widdle monkey and a pussy cat! Seriously, you have to see the graphics. Simple yes, but undeniably adorable.

 The mouses are playing catch! And I'm a widdle monkey! *squee*

The mouses are playing catch! And I'm a widdle monkey! *squee*

There is the downside that seems to come with all of these games: you have a limited number of magic uses (i.e. transformations), so messing up a puzzle will cost you. Nowadays this would be dealt with by creating some sort of bronze / silver / gold / platinum award scheme . But if you just accept that you’re going to want to save/load/save/load until you’re sure you’ve optimised your path through a level, you’re going to have a great time.

Best bit: Becoming a duck. That is all.

Holds-Up-Today-o-Rating: 8/10. Don’t argue.

See someone playing it here

 

Repton 3

 The picture on the front of the box is INCORRECT. There's absolutely no way to solve that.. YOU WILL LEARN

The picture on the front of the box is INCORRECT. There's absolutely no way to solve that.. YOU WILL LEARN

Developed by Tim Tyler and Matthew Atkinson

Published by Superior Software, 1986

Also available on: Archimedes, PC, iPhone

ETHICAL COLLUSION DISCLAIMER: I created some levels for one of the DLC packs for the PC remake, which are also on the iDevice versions. If you buy it, I get a little bit of money. There. Said it.

Right. As Girls Who Care once sang: Let’s get it out of the way. You may be familiar with Boulder Dash. Yes, Repton is similar to the globally-successful “classic”. But it’s not a clone.

However.

However, it would be dishonest to say Repton wasn’t influenced by Rockford’s jewel-stealing adventure. Tim Tyler (the guy who developed Repton – keep up) apparently read a review of Boulder Dash, and was inspired to make a similar game, and had only the words of the review in his mind, as opposed to any images of what game might be like, let-alone actually having played it. This is how game development worked in the early 80s apparently. But Repton ends up as the superior (LOL superior, because of Superior Software, geddit) game is that, whereas Boulder Dash still feels a bit “arcadey”, Repton is laid out entirely as a puzzle, and therefore has – to annoy PC Gamer writers – much more solid mechanics.

 That fuzzy thing behind me is a spirit. We've got to get him into the cage. Unfortunately, due to my need to reach the Capture Screen button, the only place he's going is up my bum.

That fuzzy thing behind me is a spirit. We've got to get him into the cage. Unfortunately, due to my need to reach the Capture Screen button, the only place he's going is up my bum.

But wait – maybe you’re not familiar with any of this? In which case, let me explain (hopefully you’ve got a couple of hours). Repton’s basic premise is “collect all the diamonds”. Although he can move in four directions, the up and down are actually Repton climbing against the backdrop; therefore he’s still susceptible to gravity’s effect on loose rocks. Each level becomes a puzzle whereby moving the rocks around avoids a) being flattened, and b) trapping any of the precious diamonds that are lodged in the landscape.

I can’t explain why a gecko wants diamonds; maybe it’s an allegory for the government of the mid 80s; maybe it’s a BLOODY VIDEOGAME AND IT DOESN’T MATTER. But, anyway, being able to pick up all of the diamonds in a level usually meant you’d solved a number of interconnecting puzzles, and therefore felt like a complete clever clogs. Like Picross, or Sudoku, with a lizard in a yellow jumper.

The original Repton became a massive success – faring much better on the Acorn machines than the port of Boulder Dash. This was then followed by (wait for it) Repton 2, in which all of the levels were interconnected, meaning you had to complete the whole game without making a single mistake. This probably says more about the mind of the programmer than anything else, but, needless to say, very few people did it. Playing this as a young child was impossible; and I think my Mum trapped one diamond out of the whole game.

Repton 3 went back, sensibly, to single levels, but also added some new elements to the game, alongside those added from the sequel. These levels were difficult but fair (you never complained if you failed – except maybe the slightly random fungus growth) and, just like the aforementioned Picross, everyone “consumed” their way through the game, and soon wanted more.

 Remembering that rocks roll off diamonds, to the left as a priority... I've already messed this up.

Remembering that rocks roll off diamonds, to the left as a priority... I've already messed this up.

Fortunately Superior Software thought the same; not only was this one of the earliest games to have both a level and graphics editor, allowing users to create their own levels, but its popularity led the creators to release three separate expansion packs (nowadays they’d be the paradox that is stand-alone DLC), leading Repton around the world, through time, and even documenting his own lifetime. These new variations occasionally jumped the shark (for example, the Ocean variation started making some solid blocks invisible in the same manner as the background – never do this), but, basically, gave people what they wanted. Moar Reptonz.

 From an expansion pack: Repton in the Arctic. Diamonds are now fish, and rocks are now snowmen. Just like  Never Alone .

From an expansion pack: Repton in the Arctic. Diamonds are now fish, and rocks are now snowmen. Just like Never Alone.

Everything after that was a mis-step; in order to send Repton off via the dying Acorn machines, Repton Infinity had a programming language to allow players to write their own Repton rules, but in doing so, replaced the “get these objects” rule with a generic score target, and a stodgy frame rate. Repton 4 on the Archimedes had a horrible picture-forming mechanic, and failed its own logic by making Repton walk around in a top-down environment.

However, the original games did keep their audience, and, in the 21st Century, some of the original Superior Software members created a revamp for the PC, and later a further adaptation for iOS things. The dude in green is alive and well it seems, and more popular than a certain egg that never made it to the Beeb.

Best bit: Getting through the rock-and-diamond grid in the middle of level 8 (TOBACCO, if you want the password – yes, I still remember); the first properly-daunting level.

Holds-Up-Today-o-Rating: 5/10 or 10/10 – depending on whether you take to it or not.

See someone playing it here

 

Spellbinder

Spellbinder_Box

Developed by Etan and Dan Shirron

Published by Superior Software/Acornsoft, 1987

If you’re under the age of, say, 25, you might be having trouble with the below screenshots. Don’t worry, you just need to stare at them a bit. It’s like a Magic Eye picture. Nearly… and… there! You now appreciate 2-colour graphics.

 That's me in the bottom left corner. That's me in the spotlight (of the giant eyeball) losing my... you get the idea

That's me in the bottom left corner. That's me in the spotlight (of the giant eyeball) losing my... you get the idea

You’ll also appreciate – without as much convincing, hopefully – the background music; a funky/medieval chiptune version of the Stranglers’ Midnight Summer Dream, which – I reckon – sounds cooler than the real song.

In Spellbinder (created by two teenagers from Israel), you’re a wizard, Harry… I mean Eldon. You’ve got to whizz round a castle (and, thanks to the odd perspective, you certainly whizz left and right at least) in order to defeat the evil wizard Zorn. This is achieved in the same proto-Metroidvania way as other games on this list, with a couple of differences: firstly, the isometric style makes the game feel a lot more like Zelda; and secondly, as well as the usual Random Unlikely Objects, you also collect spell ingredients.

In trying to write that last sentence, I will admit I got stuck. Surely, wizards cast spells, and use ingredients to make potions? However, in Spellbinder, the ingredients make the spells. It just works like that. Look, if you’re 14 years old, you try and do better.

Some of the basic spells are described in the instruction booklet (RIP); you learn the more complex powers from notes left around the castle. However, you don’t need to have read the note to “know” the spell, and there’s always a possibility that you might discover a spell by accident, experimenting in a quiet area – similar to Skyrim’s alchemy table, in fact.

 "You'll Never Get Out!" says the Wall Face. I'll show you, Wall Face. (The whole game isn't cyan; I chose screenshots poorly)

"You'll Never Get Out!" says the Wall Face. I'll show you, Wall Face. (The whole game isn't cyan; I chose screenshots poorly)

Quiet areas, however, are few and far between. You have to create and cast these spells on the fly, using a clunky menu-based system, with no guarantee that you’re going to be safe from whatever bads are in the area. You could argue that, today, Dark Souls also makes you rummage through your inventory, admittedly; but even Lordran gives you at least some places you can stand still without a giant eyeball bouncing on your head. Add to that the fact that you don’t necessarily know you’re taking damage (your health isn’t automatically displayed and has to be viewed through the same menu), and it can be almost impossible to get through. I’ll confess I’ve only finished this with a cheat and save states. But it’s still worth seeing a game that uses fleas as a buff system, and a clunky day/night cycle for the outdoor sections.

Best bit: You can examine a wall, and the game actively describes it as a “Wall”. Later on, leaning on an altar in the far reaches of the castle results in a rumbling sound. Head back and – gasp! – the wall’s shifted, thus allowing you to access a whole other section of the game. I know that just sounds like a key/door thing, but the distance between the puzzle elements felt like some kind of Seeing-The-Matrix goodness.

Holds-Up-Today-o-Rating: 3/10 if you try and play it – maybe just watch it.

See someone playing it here

 

Starship Command

 Boxes for both systems here. Firstly: The image on the front cover's a screenshot - it's taken 25 years to get back to that again. Also, if you had an Acorn Electron, the blue grid will be a nostalgia-trigger.

Boxes for both systems here. Firstly: The image on the front cover's a screenshot - it's taken 25 years to get back to that again. Also, if you had an Acorn Electron, the blue grid will be a nostalgia-trigger.

Developed by Peter Irvin

Published by Acornsoft, 1983

One of the first games that can actually be described as “not a rip-off of an arcade game”, Starship Command’s importance can’t be understated. Asteroids might’ve started the vector graphics shebang, but Starship Command made it look like a sack o shit. Try turning your starship round. You think it’s difficult rotating your ship’s vector graphic in the early 80s? Well, when you turn left in Starship Command, THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE IS ROTATED TO THE RIGHT, and your ship stays the same way up on the screen. I know this doesn’t sound impressive now. Look, shut it.

 Yep, all 4 of those guys are going down

Yep, all 4 of those guys are going down

Basic story? There’s a war on. Get out there and shoot the bad guys. However, the game’s a lot more original than that sounds. Rather than having a finite series of targets in a level, or a single endless struggle that exists purely to set a new high score, you can keep shooting until your ship gives up, at which point you either die horribly, or, if you’re quick enough, use one of your ship’s escape pods (the launching of which also sets off your ship’s self-destruct sequence).

Assuming you make it back in one piece (your escape pod can collide with an enemy craft if you’re not careful, making the choice between the port and starboard pods a vital one), your performance during the battle is reviewed by your superiors. Only shot down a couple of ships before you got shot to bits? Sacked. Decided to ram into everything like an un-coordinated dipshit? Sacked. Wussed out and hit the escape pod straight away? So sacked. So you better make a good go of it. Assuming you passed with flying colours, you get another go, in another, sometimes cooler, starship.

 ALL HANDS ABANDON SHIP! REPEAT: ALL HANDS ABANDON

ALL HANDS ABANDON SHIP! REPEAT: ALL HANDS ABANDON

Unless you’re successfully reading through the machine code (in which case go away), the exact outcome of your performance review can be difficult to predict. Therefore, the game never lets you rest on your laurels; you can’t be rash, as you may find you have to abandon ship before you’ve got anywhere near enough points; nor can you switch off after a successful run, in case one of those twats with the plasma torpedo clusters dives in to view while you weren’t looking, and shreds you into pieces. Barring some slight slowdown when things get hectic, everything seems to be technically correct: Your scanners and shields take up the same resources and therefore switch out when enemies are near (this and so many other control options are made available to change to your preference); some larger enemy ships have cloaking devices, requiring the need to trace torpedo trails.

 "satisfied". *smug*

"satisfied". *smug*

And each enemy ship feels like it’s piloted by a different individual. Some take a few single shots and retreat; some go a bit kamikaze; others spend the time lining up the perfect barrage, like an interstellar snooker player. Then there are the shits with the torpedo clusters which obliterate your shields in a second or two. The latter is perhaps the only really unfair element; you don’t discover you’re in an (almost) unwinnable situation until it’s perhaps too late. But you’ll want another go. Attaboy.

Best bit: Clocking up what you know is a mega-high score, waiting until the ship’s “energy” is really close to explode time, launching your starboard escape pod, and using the starship’s momentum to ram into some cheaty shit with a cloaking device. And then your bosses say they’re “pleased”.

Holds-Up-Today-o-Rating: 10/10 – I was going to say “why no-one’s remade this, I don’t know” – actually, I know the answer to this: Firstly, Awesome on the Amiga was the attempted sequel, but was in fact a complete backwards step (if anything at all, you know this as one of the “guest background music” from Lemmings). Secondly, the creator of the game still keeps his eye out for IP sneaking, meaning fan remakes disappear. Which is a shame.

See someone playing it here

 

Honorable mentions (games that you shouldn’t play, but deserve a mention as curios):

Barbarian – lazy inferior version of Golden Axe, only worth mentioning because of Wolf from the Gladiators and Maria from Page 3 on the cover.

Bonecruncher – Repton lite, most famous for the bizarre audio on the loader.

Cricket – Hey! Fielders! Try fucking doing something!

Dare Devil Denis – You’re a stunt motorcyclist for a film. If you don’t think that landing on your head after a bike crash is funny, you need to see this.

Eddie Kidd’s Jump Challenge – Another motorbike jump game? This is strangely moreish, but not as fun now as it might’ve been, considering what happened to the real Eddie Kidd.

Escape from Moonbase Alpha – A kind-of-OK randomly-generated 3D maze adventure, which has the added bonus of including every British sci-fi character ever. Doctor Who, Marvin, Evil Edna…

Frak – Dull platformer. People think this is cool because the guy says “Frak” when he means “Fuck”. It isn’t.

Jet Boot Jack – Atari arcade platformer conversion that seems to have been forgotten. Use your rocket skates to build up the ultimate record collection, in a record factory that looks like a cave for some reason.

Jetpac – The beginning of Rare. Jetpac? Jetman. Solar Jetman. WIN.

Paul Daniels’ Magic Show – I have no idea; I just saw the box art.

Podd – If you had a BBC Micro at school, you had Podd. “Podd can” says the screen, prompting you for a verb. If he knows how to do it, he’ll do it! No, it doesn’t recognise “Podd can shit”.

Space Hi-Way – a Space Invaders-alike that needs a mention thanks to the Eighties British Videogame Plot™. Those fucking aliens are stopping at the intergalactic fuel station, and then flying away without paying. BOOOOOOO!

Survivors – Another Repton-esque game, but one that deserves a remake. You switch between three robots, each of which has a different role in rescuing survivors (tunnelling through Earth, transporting people, etc.)

$wag – A bonkers, 2 player, single-screen precursor to GTA. Be the first to get £250000 in stolen diamonds. Also features mini police robots. And beer.

Treasure Hunt – Another educational game we had at school. I say “educational”; you had to choose 2 out of 6 objects at the start of the game. One of the correct options was a jar of jam; failing to choose this results in the bizarre conversation: “I’d give you this key for some jam… but you haven’t any”. Always remember to take jam with you, kids. It’ll be in your GCSEs. For some reason this has disappeared off the face of the Earth.

Weetabix vs the Titchies – We needed a Space Invaders clone with the short-lived Weetabix mascots apparently.

XOR – Apparently a classic; you play as a pair of shields in this puzzle game in which you need… yes, two shields, as I said… to collect all the masks in each level in order… yeah, shields. Shields.

Anyway. There we are. Bless you Beeb.