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.
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).
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)