Night has fallen... goodbye Mike Singleton, the Lord of Midnight

by PaulEMoz in , , , , , ,

Man, this is getting quite upsetting... we're losing too many of our Gods.  News has reached me that legendary programmer Mike Singleton, author of bona fide classics The Lords of Midnight and Doomdark's Revenge, has passed away.

ZX Spectrum fans will be most familiar with Mike Singleton's work, and although it might not be a surprise to learn he started his games programming career in the days of the ZX81 and VIC-20, it might be more of a surprise to find he worked on games right up to Codemasters' recent racing thrill-fest, Race Driver: GRID.  He also appeared to be collaborating on a version of The Lords of Midnight for mobile platforms... let's hope the author still manages to get that released, it would be a fine tribute.

The Lords of... GRID-night?
Although he moved on to be responsible for a number of Amiga and ST classics, I'm going to concentrate on the games Mike released in the time period I'm writing about... the games he wrote for the Spectrum.

I'll be honest, because I only got to play on Spectrums in short bursts, I found myself baffled by The Lords of Midnight and Doomdark's Revenge.  They were far, far deeper than anything I'd ever encountered up to that point... I was all about arcade games.  It was after I'd been hooked by The Bard's Tale on the Commodore 64 that I went back to them, playing the C64 conversions.  I can't lay claim to having beaten the games, but I did learn to appreciate and enjoy them quite a bit.  But they weren't Mike Singleton's only games... I'm going to start with the 16K games.


When someone writes a game named after Gandalf's horse, you know immediately where they're coming from.  Having said that, with only 16K to work with you couldn't be expecting a Lord of the Rings-style epic.  What you get is a game that reminds me of Stampede on the Atari 2600.  Riding your beautifully-animated white horse from right to left, you must fire lightning bolts at the hordes of Sauron's dread riders.  And... that's it.  A high score is your reward for surviving for as long as possible.  It's simplistic arcade fun, and an innocuous start to a storied career.

Ride, my beauty... ride like the wind!

Taking on a more traditional military theme, Siege sees you atop a particularly high wall, which is being scaled by a seemingly-infinite army.  Luckily, you have a seemingly-infinite supply or projectiles to drop on them, knocking them from the wall.  It reminds me, oddly, of Kaboom! on the Atari, except you get to be at the top of the wall rather than at the bottom doing the catching.  Again, it's simple, but it's pretty good fun.

This isn't going to end well...
Snake Pit

A cross between Snake and PacMan, Snake Pit sees you as a yellow circular thing with a big mouth, who likes nothing more than eating eggs.  The trouble is, once you start eating eggs, you free some big, horrible snakes, and they like eating yellow circular things with big mouths.  A bit of a problem, that.  On the other hand, if you eat all the eggs, you then get to try and eat the snakes, so it's not all bad.  It's OK for what it is, and probably went down really well on the 16K machine at the time.

Snakes.  Why did it have to be snakes?
3-Deep Space

I thought that this was a straightforward space shoot 'em up with fiddly controls, until I did a bit of research, which revealed that this actually was, literally, a 3D shooter!  That explained a lot!  That being the case, I couldn't really give it a proper go, as you need 3D glasses to see exactly what you're doing... the ships move on a 3D plane, so you can only destroy them if you're on the same plane.  It's a pretty ambitious and innovative effort in that case, but one I can't really comment on properly.

I bet this looks better through funny glasses.
The Lords of Midnight

Nothing that Mike Singleton had previously done had given any indication as to what would be next.  You just couldn't imagine that someone who had programmed some fairly simple-but-enjoyable arcade-style games would suddenly come out with one of the most epic strategy-cum-adventure-cum-fantasy war games that had ever been seen.  Indeed, the combination of genres made The Lords of Midnight one of the most original games available in its time.

Luxor the Moonprince... the original pensive hero.
Intended as the first of a trilogy, this is not a game to play when you have a few minutes spare, although it's possible you can lose in minutes when you first start out.  But even after a few hours, you've only just begun to scratch the surface.

The object of the game is to take Prince Luxor and defeat the Wichking, Doomdark, who is threatening to seize complete control of the Lands of Midnight.  As you would expect of someone who is a Witchking, Doomdark is quite evil and has a huge force at his disposal.  But evil will always be opposed, and there are characters all across the land who may be willing to help Luxor in his quest... if you can find them.

This doesn't look good.  Do you think if I get a round in they'll be OK?

Fortunately, Luxor has three allies from the beginning, and you can also control them in your attempt to destroy Doomdark and his armies.

Once you begin, you start to realise just how impressive the scope of this game is.  For a start, the story, although heavily inspired by Lord of the Rings, is very well fleshed-out.  The number of unique characters you encounter is also surprisingly large, and given that you can send any or all of your four initial characters in any direction and in any combination right from the beginning, it could take you a long, long time before you encounter them all.

Rorthron the Wise is also Rorthron the Deadly, it seems...
For all that, though, you never feel as though you're stuck in a boring trudge across the landscape.  You always feel as though you're part of something epic, and that danger and evil is lurking around every corner.  And with two distinct ways of completing the game, the longevity is guaranteed.  The Lords of Midnight has inspired countless games, and is rightly regarded as a classic.

Doomdark's Revenge

How do you follow a game like The Lords of Midnight?  How about with a sequel that is bigger, more involved and which addresses any small issues that the original may have had?  That always sounds like a good idea, and so it was that Mike Singleton released Doomdark's Revenge.

He's back, and still awesome. As a side-note, the only time I ever played D&D, my
character was called Luxor.  Bastard DM killed him off within an hour of starting.
With Doomdark beaten, the Lands of Midnight are peaceful again... or so everyone thinks.  What they didn't take into account was that Doomdark the Witchking had a daughter... Shareth the Heartstealer.  And she is now consumed by anger and fury... not that her father is dead, but that someone else killed him before she could.  That's how you know she's especially evil, and that trouble is just around the corner...

Doomdark's Revenge sees you travelling to the Lands of Icemark, where Shareth dwells.  The quest is larger, more epic and more involved, for you are not just attempting to destroy Shareth, but also to find Luxor's son, Morkin, who has been spirited away by the evil Heartstealer.

Tarithel is attempting to win back her love, who was taken by Shareth.
A showdown at the end could be the 8-bit equivalent of female jelly wrestling.
This time around there are more commands at your disposal, and it seems slightly more user-friendly.  The map is quite a.bit bigger than in Lords of Midnight, but consequently seems less inhabited.  I suppose you might expect that, especially in a land called Icemark, but in games like this you actually like bumping into things.

Special mention must go to the superb packaging of these games.  The artwork is striking and excellent, and the inclusion of the novellas with the instructions really helps to set the scene and get the story across.

"Luxor is not at all despondent".
He obviously wasn't planning to watch Poland v England on Tuesday night.
Doomdark's Revenge is certainly a worthy sequel to The Lords of Midnight, and a great game in its own right.  It will forever remain our loss that we will not see The Eye of the Moon, and the conclusion of the trilogy

Throne of Fire

This game was designed by Mike Singleton, but apparently not programmed by him.  I'm sure there's a story behind that, maybe I'll be able to find out.  There's a story behind the game too, and it's typically involved.

King Atherik is dead, and the Throne of Fire is empty.  Atherik had three sons: Alorn, the Lion Prince; Cordrin, the Sun Prince; and Karag, the Wolf Prince.  Only one of these sons can take over the Throne... but the condition is that whoever takes the Throne must be the last one alive.  So begins a cat-and-mouse hunt throughout the castle, with ultimate rule being the prize, and death awaiting the losers!

Avast, ye varlet!  Oh wait, that's pirates, isn't it?
This is a very novel premise, and I'm not sure if I've ever seen it repeated, although I suppose it is a little like the forefather of the deathmatch, as it is possible to play a two-player game using the split-screen.  The castle interior is displayed on a map at the bottom of the screen, but you can only see a small part of it at a time.  Handily, it shows you which rooms are occupied, and by which Prince's men, so you always know whether you're going to be in a fight or not.

Sadly, the fighting is the least satisfying part of the game.  All that happens is you walk into a room with an enemy, the two characters waggle their weapons at each other, and one of them vanishes.  There's no feel involved, no feedback or even any real idea if you're winning or losing.  I don't know if it would have been difficult to implement some kind of energy system (besides the beating heart at the top of the screen), but it would have helped.

And with that, my dreams of being King are over.
That said, it's still a fun game and the allure of becoming King is strong.  With a little bit of tweaking, Throne of Fire could have been a classic.  As it is, it's "merely" a fairly entertaining romp.

Dark Sceptre

I will always remember the first time I saw Dark Sceptre in Crash magazine.  I couldn't believe my eyes.  The characters were huge!  And it looked like a fighting game... it had to be awesome!

Harry was late for his Ku Klux Klan initiation.
Of course, being a Mike Singleton game, it isn't really a fighting game at all.  It is, in fact, a very strategic game where although the characters fight, you don't personally swing a single sword in anger.  Instead, you're like the supreme commander, and you issue orders to your legion who will do their best to carry out your will.

The story goes that the Northlanders, their ships battered by wild seas, ended up at the Islands of the Western Sea.  Generously, the Lord of the Isles offered them shelter through the winter, and strong ships for their journey home when spring arrived.

The list of commands, as you can see, is quite extensive.
The Northlanders, though, chose not to leave, demanding land to make their homes.  The Lord of the Isles was not pleased, and fashioned a magical Dark Sceptre with which he planned to drive out the Northlanders.  The plan went awry when the Sceptre gave the Northlanders a terrible power, and turned them into Lords of Shadow.  The Sceptre would have to be destroyed to rid the Isles of this evil.

Dark Sceptre is not a fast, action-packed game.  Far from it.  But it's really quite compelling.  Choosing one of your characters, giving him a series of commands and then watching him stalk the landscape, attempting to carry them out, is compulsive stuff.  I found myself really intrigued as each of my warriors went to do battle with the Lords of Shadow.

Go on, son.  Get stuck in!
As you would expect, you're not going to beat this game quickly.  In fact, it takes a lot of planning and experimentation to get anywhere at all.  It will take weeks of in-game time to drive out the Northlanders, and it's not something that will be to everyone's taste.  Personally, I was easily interested enough to persevere, and I want to play it again even now.

War in Middle Earth

After all the games that were inspired by The Lord of the Rings, it was inevitable that there would eventually be a game based directly on The Lord of the Rings.  The only surprise is that Mike Singleton didn't actually design the game he programmed.

What isn't a surprise is that War in Middle Earth is an epic war game.  How could it be anything else?  The object of the game is to... oh, come on.  Really?  You must know this by now.  Oh, alright... the evil Sauron has lost his ring of power, and he wants it back.  The ring has found its way to the unlikeliest of owners, the unassuming Hobbit, Frodo.  An allegiance is made between all the races of Middle Earth, and a quest to Mount Doom to destroy the ring is undertaken.  It must be successful... Middle Earth depends upon it.

If only Peter Jackson had done the graphics...
The game displays a map of the whole of Middle Earth.  Highlighted on it are various factions, and you have a gloved hand at your disposal with which you can select any of these, or just magnify any part of the land if you want.

This is where your strategy comes into play.  You must move your "pieces" into place so that you can counter Sauron's forces.  You choose each unit, give them an order, then select the "Time" button, and everyone will begin to move accordingly.  Sauron's armies will also move at this point, so you must hope that your moves are strong enough to counter his, and that eventually you can drop the ring into Mount Doom, thus destroying it and returning peace to the land.

I'm not sure about that Frodo.  He doesn't seem determined enough for this task.
As quests go, there aren't many more epic than this one.  There's an enormous amount of game here for those that are strategically-inclined, and it will no doubt take months to achieve a successful outcome.  For me, personally, it's a strategy game too far.  It's just a bit much for my meagre brain to grasp, and though I struggled manfully with it I didn't get anywhere.  Anyone with a penchant for controlling armies and a love of little men with big hairy feet, though, would have no doubt loved War in Middle Earth.

There were other games, of course, on other systems, with various degrees of involvement.  The Midwinter games, especially, are highly renowned.  For Spectrum owners in particular, though, the legacy of great games is as strong as that of anyone you could care to mention.

I had hoped to talk to Mike Singleton about the games I've written about and his Eighties' programming days.  Indeed, I'd recently sent an email to someone asking if it might be possible.  Sadly, I didn't even realise he was ill, and it was not to be, but I will certainly be featuring his works in my book, and would love to include quotes in tribute from those that knew and worked with him, or were inspired by him.

We, as creatures, are not on this planet for long.  It's important to try and leave our own mark on it, in some way, while we are here.  Mike Singleton has left an enormous, indelible mark, one that has inspired generations and will no doubt continue to do so.  He will be sadly missed.