Rocket Man – Sinclair ZX81 Review

Retro Resolution Retro Review

System: Sinclair ZX81
Developer: Software Farm
Year: 1984

Rocket Man - Software Farm - ZX-81

Rocket Man was the second of four arcade-style releases from ZX81 alchemists Software Farm; proudly exclaimed beneath the fantastic cover art was the statement “…resolution identical to the Spectrum without any additional hardware”, and for once this was no marketing hyperbole.

Rocket Man - Software Farm - Cassette Inlay

[ Image: The Software Farm Tribute Page ]

Employing truly staggering high-resolution visuals, Rocket Man is a seamless blend of gaming styles, incorporating platforming reminiscent of Chuckie Egg along with the disparate flying elements of both Jetpac and Joust, producing six levels of addictive and distinctive gaming all of its own.

The magnitude of the software-only high resolution graphics engine devised by author Julian Chappel is best appreciated in the following screen grab, which shows the entire graphics output Sinclair’s wonderfully retro-future styled machine could offer; there is no native bit-mapped screen mode (and indeed no graphics hardware at all – the Zilog Z80 processor is used to draw the screen in much the same manner as the Atari VCS/2600 used its MOS 6507)

Sinclair ZX-81 Native Character Set

Your mission is to retrieve five enormous diamonds whilst being chased by a Bubloid, an amorphous mass reminiscent of The Prisoner’s iconic spherical guardian, which is hell-bent on dragging you to a watery death (accompanied by a pleasingly animated splash). The progressive enemy AI is notably impressive, becoming almost unnerving as it homes in upon your protagonist whilst working around the obstacles in its path.

Reaching the jewels necessitates collection of sufficient rocket fuel for your jet pack (or legs of lamb for your vulture on the later levels!) whilst scrambling around the platforms; the amount required is left to the player’s judgement – too little and it’s time for an early bath…

Your task is eased thanks to the game’s sublime movement mechanics, including the ability to control the rocketeer’s direction whilst jumping and falling, which adds both depth and strategy to the proceedings. The flying elements require deployment of an altogether different set of skills given that manoeuvring is possible only whilst thrusting, accompanied as it is by an often troublesome gain in altitude.

Software Farm - The Cosmic Cockerel

For any of you wishing to experience this wonderful title via without access to the original hardware I’d strongly recommend using an accurate emulator, such as EightyOne (version 1a) on Windows, as many struggle with the controls, preventing accurate jumping, or worse precluding steering during flight.

As befits the objective of Rocket Man, this is a true gaming gem, one unfortunately experienced by few due to it’s release in the dying days of Sinclair’s monochrome, membrane-keyed masterpiece. If ever a title was deserving of a modern day remake, this is surely it.

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