On the Origins of Survival Horror
System: Sinclair ZX81
Developer: Malcolm Evans
Publisher: J.K. Greye Software / New Generation Software
Genre: Survival Horror
A monster from savage prehistory;
A machine from the dawn of microcomputing;
A man pioneering the concept of survival horror.
There are many classic retro games, but only a select few are truly system-defining; 3D Monster Maze, by far my favourite ZX81 indulgence, is one such title. A full third of a century after release, Malcolm Evans’ undisputed masterpiece remains genuinely, thrillingly playable, without recourse whatsoever to rose-tinted eyewear.
Contrary to popular conception, Monster Maze is not the earliest three-dimensional maze game released on Sinclair’s diminutive micro; that accolade goes to Axis software’s 1981 3D Labyrinth. The earlier title, however, is a stripped-back affair lacking in many features so integral to its more famous counterpart, not least of which is the critical addition of a bloodthirsty opponent: the inimitable Tyrannosaurus Rex.
3D Monster Maze’s concept is deceptively simple, tasking the player with locating the exit of a randomly generated labyrinth, the view of which is convincingly presented in first-person perspective. Upping the ante is the presence of the titular monster, a beast who is not about to let his human ready-meal escape.
The genius of the game lays in a sublime, immersive combination of engrossing gameplay and pervasive atmosphere. Allied to the intellectual challenge of besting the labyrinth is the engagement of the player’s primal fight-or-flight instinct; stranded and weaponless, for this is no first person shooter, fleeing is the hapless adventurer’s only option.
The player is engaged from the outset via an alluring and informative (semi) animated introduction. A mysterious, sparkly-suited carnival barker promises ‘entertainment and exhilaration’ in the form of Rex, ‘King of the dinosaurs… Perfectly preserved in silicon since prehistoric times’. Perhaps the showman is a projection of the author himself, pulling strings, setting the scene, and issuing a warning which serves in part as goading challenge to entice the punters, and in part as Health and Safety notice (justified, Evans felt, given his own startled reaction to his creation).
Playing to a medium’s restrictions as much as to its strengths is a hallmark of the creative genius; Evans’ Monster Maze neatly illustrates the concept of limitations driving art, even on the microcomputer. Once your intrepid adventurer rises to the challenge, the showman doffs his top hat and announces that the ‘sands of time pass over…’; the author here disguises the tedious procedural maze construction, ingeniously utilising the delay to further build tension and atmosphere. Coincidentally that other, slightly better known, survival horror title Resident Evil employs a similar mechanic in the form of the infamous ‘opening door’ animation.
The game proper begins, presenting an ambience strongly reminiscent of the celebrated monochrome silent movie Nosferatu. The player finds themselves entrapped within imposing colourless walls, enveloped in a claustrophobic, deafening silence (making this perhaps the only ZX81 title to actively benefit from the absolute lack of audio facilities on the machine). Simple textual status updates relate the activity or proximity of the monster, including the infamous, fear-inducing statement ‘RUN he is behind you’.
Deceptively simple controls – left, right, forwards – belie satisfyingly deep gameplay. The inability to backpeddle seems inconsequential at first, but becomes critical as the betoothed adversary unerringly tracks the player, employing a remorseless Terminator-style stalking algorithm. Whilst the adventurer can outpace the monster, attempting to turn and flee following a panic inducing encounter inevitably leads to tangled fingers, and a swift death.
This ZX81 masterpiece features one of the earliest and, to me, most effective jump-scares in video gaming; ranking alongside the alien pilots of Rescue on Fractalus, and the iconic zombie canines of Resident Evil, 3D Monster Maze’s full-screen animation of Rex looming large stands proud. Remarkably this stunning double-buffered effect was not replicable by Evans on the ZX81’s otherwise more powerful younger brother, due to the nature of Spectrum’s high-resolution bit-mapped graphics.
Once you are immersed in the gaming experience, encountering Evans’ monster seems far more terrifying than witnessing the photorealistic Rex of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park; admittedly Sinclair’s machine hardly boasted cutting edge hardware, yet to me it is incredible that just 11 years divides these CGI tyrannosaurs, such was the phenomenal pace of advancement in computing power.
Subtle gameplay mechanics contribute to the allure and longevity of the title. Long term interest is sustained via randomly created mazes, which crucially avoid a common drawback of procedural generation; following an inevitable gruesome death you can elect to resurrect your adventurer within the current labyrinth, allowing local knowledge to become an adjunct to fast reactions, and luck, in outwitting Rex.
The game’s scoring mechanic also employs a twist; points are awarded for each step taken, but only when Rex is actively hunting. The player must deliberately court close encounters of the toothy kind in order to amass a large points tally. Bonus points are granted upon reaching the safety of the exit, which appears as a hypnotically shimmering Stargate-like portal created from nothing more than the limited ZX81 character set.
It is incredibly unlikely that 3D Monster Maze was known to the authors of Resident Evil, or that title’s likely inspiration, Sweet Home. The emergence of the Survival Horror genre on separate continents hosting disparate cultures is thus an example of Multiple Independent Discovery, that phenomenon which lead both Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton to separately devise calculus; both Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin to produce theories of evolution. Or perhaps Evans’ creation is more akin to Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, an invention predating the technology required to truly realise the underlying vision.
Many technically significant titles are released late in the lifecycle of the host platform, once the machine’s secrets have been unearthed; not so 3D Monster Maze, which was completed by November 1981, yet languished unreleased until 1982. Unfathomably, one of the greatest games on the ZX81 was originally written by Evans solely as a programming exercise, not as a commercial venture. That this creation was a labour of love, not a soulless by-the-numbers effort written to somebody else’s specification, explains the depth and polish of the title.
For those of us old enough to relish retro computing for the memories, as much as the pure gaming experience, it is heartening that this groundbreaking title was created by a man in his forties. Evans, an electronics specialist working in the aeronautics and satellite industries, entered the world of programming relatively late in his career, and then only ventured into the realm of home computing after receiving his ZX81 as a gift from his wife.
Arguably the apotheosis of gaming on the ZX81, and the ancestor of the survival horror genre, 3D Monster Maze still delivers thrills, suspense, and adrenaline in equal measure.
Following publication of this review I was made aware of SoftTango’s tremendous analysis of the 3D Monster Maze code, revealing the secrets behind the rendering engine and game logic. I recommend anyone with even a passing interest take a look here
I’ve also read a great post on AtariCrypt’s excellent Atari ST site, in which the author runs 3D Monster Maze via Christoph Zwerschke’s ZX81 emulator on the glorious 16-bit machine: Black and White Fun
Links: Retro Resolution Retro Reviews