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.
Oft-heard phrases amongst retro gamers include ‘modern games are visually stunning but utterly shallow’ and ‘in classic titles it’s the game-play that counts’ (or words to that effect). Text adventures aside, Abacus Programs’ ZX81 masterpiece Protector is a title which can certainly lend credence to the latter opinion.
At first glance Protector appears as a traditional side-scrolling shmup, most resembling a clone of Scramble, albeit one rendered in inimitable ZX81 style from capital letters, mathematical symbols and chunky solid character blocks. Although graphically reminiscent of the aforementioned arcade classic, Protector neatly inverts the coin-op’s gameplay, charging the player with defending the Zarqon home-world from the might of an alien invasion fleet with nought but the space ship Sentinel.
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.
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)