System: ZX Spectrum
Developer: Bob Pape
Publisher: Electric Dreams
Genre: Arcade / Shoot-em-up
For the majority of gamers in the Eighties a rare and much-coveted visit to the amusement arcades provided exposure to truly cutting edge gaming experiences. Ensconced in dark, neon-lit caverns of alien sounds lay technology so advanced that it appeared to have arrived from another galaxy, perhaps one such as the setting for the 1987 arcade phenomenon R-Type.
Irem‘s horizontally scrolling blaster was a title of such finesse that it can truly be classed as genre-defining, due in part to phenomenal game mechanics and in part to the then state-of-the-art M72 hardware on which it ran. Producing a conversion on the infinitely less powerful ZX Spectrum was always going to be a tall order.
The history of colour in Spectrum games appears inversely related to that of cinematography and television. Early games were awash with hues, revelling in the polychromatic capabilities newly added to the Sinclair computing range. As time progressed the games market was increasingly pervaded by ports of arcade titles sourced from machines utilising ever more powerful hardware; the requirement for graphical verisimilitude saw colour sacrificed on the altar of attribute clash and the visual landscape of the Spectrum rendered increasingly, and ironically, monochrome.
Into this often dreary world of Spectrum conversions R-Type exploded like a glorious supernova, effecting a sudden switch from black-and-white into colour that was every bit as stunning to contemporary audiences as the transition from Kansas to Oz in Victor Fleming’s famous 1939 movie.
Rare’s Goldeneye may well be the one of the most well known secret agent games but it certainly wasn’t the first; into a 1985 choked with substandard TV and film tie-ins, Beyond Software’s Spy vs Spy triumphantly brought to the small screen the antics of MAD magazine’s eponymous battling super spies. The attractive central premise casts the player in the role of espionage-minded spy conducting a raid on a foreign embassy, stealing four secret items (plus a briefcase to hold them) before escaping via means of a handily-placed aircraft.
The target building is devoid of all occupants save a lone rival hell-bent on the exact same mission, yet this title is much more than a simple collect-em-up. As all good spies know gadgets, weaponry, and stealth are staples of the trade, and as such the game provides an arsenal of booby-traps to hinder your opponent’s progress. Accessible via an icon-driven ‘trapulator’ are six items including time bombs, trip-wire activated guns, and electrified buckets of water. Tactical placement of traps is vital as utilisation of each weapon requires advance planning, as does the strategic placement of counter measures (such as scissors to disable the gun, and fire-bucket to douse bomb fuses).
Although designed from the ground-up as a two player experience Spy vs. Spy is extremely fun to play in single-player mode, thanks both to the rare and perfectly implemented example of Spectrum split-screen action, and to a wide range of gameplay options. Five user-selectable levels of enemy AI are available running the gamut from ‘sharp as a tack’ through to ‘dumb as a bag of spanners’, along with a general difficulty level which controls the number of rooms in the embassy (ranging from a simplistic six to a decidedly devilish 36).
System: ZX Spectrum
Developer: Matthew Smith
Publisher: Software Projects (original release), Bug Byte (re-release)
In the early days of video games, long before production required teams numbered in the tens or the hundreds, on rare occasions certain magical titles and their authors become synonymous with the systems for which they wrote. Carmack and Romero, the IBM PC: Doom. Shigeru Miyamoto, the Nintendo Entertainment System: Super Mario Bros. Matthew Smith, the ZX Spectrum: Manic Miner.
Indisputably iconic and absolutely legendary, Matthew Smith and his Miner Willy created a sensation in 1983 with the archetypal platform game; Manic Miner beckons you to traverse twenty single-screen caverns, each encompassing wonderfully distinctive and splendidly animated sprites, precise and cunning platform designs, and intricately crafted enemy movement patterns.
By no means his first commercial release (that honour falls to the little-known TRS-80 title Delta Tower One) Smith’s pioneering magnum opus impresses from the off, presenting a cleverly animated loading screen utilising the Spectrum’s Flash command to alternately display the legend ‘Manic’ and ‘Miner’ in massive, colourful, and chunky (yet friendly) text.
Developer: (arcade) Japan Capsule Computers (Capcom)
Developer: (ZX Spectrum) Elite Systems
In Capcom‘s seminal 1985 arcade run-and-gun title Commando you are cast in the role of Super Joe, hero of the arcade legend’s earlier Bionic Commando coin-op. Dropped behind enemy lines by helicopter (unfortunately absent from the Spectrum conversion – perhaps due to defense budget cuts) you find yourself undertaking that 1980’s favourite mission of ‘one man against an army’, aiming to breach a pair of super-fortresses located at the end of two sets of four vertically-scrolling action-filled desert levels.
Your frankly suicidal commando is equipped with everybody’s favourite weapon, the unlimited-ammunition machine gun, along with a stock of grenades which must be replenished from handily placed supplies throughout the levels. By default grenades are dispatched by holding down the fire button for a moment as, unlike the arcade parent, Spectrum-era joysticks were restricted to a single logical fire button, even for multi-triggered Quickshot sticks.
In the heat of the action this delay often proved deadly until a little cunning was applied in the form of a foot-activated button dedicated to grenade lobbing, fashioned from a Ram-turbo twin-port joystick interface, a classic Atari CX-40 controller, and the extremely handy ‘redefine keys’ menu option…