My top ten Spectrum games

by Paul Morrison


Not too long ago, it was put to me that it might be a good idea to have lists of my top ten games on various systems on the website.  That way, people would gain a bit more insight into the kind of gamer I am and maybe of whether I'm even qualified to be embarking on something of this nature.

I thought that was a good idea, but rather than add lists I thought I'd at least give the games the respect they deserve in the form of write-ups.  It's taken longer than I would have liked, but I'm adding my first top tens to the website now.

It must be stressed that these are just my favourite ten games, in alphabetical order, as they stand at the moment.  If you're anything like me, these lists can change at any point in time.  For that reason, I've added some games that just failed to make it at the end of the last post in every list.  They may yet change on here over time... and I might beef up the text of those that are already here (some feel a bit rushed).

With that all said, here are my top ten games for the ZX Spectrum.  Please feel free to comment on any or all of them.  I like discussion!


Chaos

by Paul Morrison


I must confess, I came to Chaos late. Very late, in fact... within the last five years. I'd never played it or even heard of it until then. But when two mates, completely unconnected, mentioned it as one of the best Spectrum games ever, I figured I had to give it a try. And I'm really glad that I did...

Strategy games were never my thing. That's probably got a lot to do with the fact we had arcade games in our chip shops, taxi offices and corner shops. You'd head in with your pocket money and treat yourself to some fast-paced (and usually short-lived) fun. There was no time for strategy, subtlety or thought.

Doesn't look very chaotic at the moment...

Doesn't look very chaotic at the moment...

Computer games changed all that, though. You could play a game at your leisure, even taking a whole night if you wanted! That broadening of scope led to some incredibly deep games being released, and there were few as willing to test your brain's capacity for strategy as Julian Gollop.

There's no great storyline to Chaos... it's described as “a game of magical combat between 2 to 8 wizards in an arena”. But do you really have to have a story every time you play a game? As long as you have an objective, that's enough.

Now things are really heating up!

Now things are really heating up!

Being a wizard, you have a list of spells you can cast. These spells summon creatures, both real and imaginary, of all kinds. The aim is to use these creatures to counter those of your opponent(s), and eventually overcome any and all other wizards in the arena.

It really is that simple, and there's not much more that can be said about it. In practice, it is absolutely fantastic to play, even for a single player against computer wizards. Going up against human opponents, though, is about as much fun as you can have on a single screen. Especially when you win. Give it a go and find out!


Deathchase

by Paul Morrison


Remember Return of the Jedi? What am I asking? Of course you do! It was the final chapter in the biggest film series of our lives! It wasn't quite as good as the first two Star Wars films, but it had some great bits in it. One of the best bits was the speeder chase through the forests of Endor. Wasn't it exciting? Perfect for a video game, surely?

And yet, when it was featured in the official arcade game, that section was a bit dull. Whereas the film featured thrilling “bumper cam” shots that really emphasised the speed and danger, the arcade game used an isometric 3D viewpoint and more Ewoks than was necessary. Shame. If only someone could have produced a game that viewed the action through that bumper cam...

Shooting the breeze... shooting through the trees... shooting bikers with ease...

Shooting the breeze... shooting through the trees... shooting bikers with ease...

Fortunately, someone did. Mervyn J. Estcourt programmed Deathchase for the Spectrum, a game which puts you 500 years into the future, racing bikes through a forest territory and shooting down enemy riders, tanks and helicopters for bounty. It's a thrilling job but a dangerous one, with the thousand dollars per rider plus bonuses being some consolation...

You might think that you can just amble along, taking it easy, waiting for unsuspecting riders to stray into your path. It doesn't work like that, though... your bike's special design means that it can only fire when at top speed. So if you're going to earn your crust, you're going to have to do it the hard way.

This forest is like a battle zone...

This forest is like a battle zone...

Deathchase is another of those games that was crammed into 16K, which is frightening, really. Again, simplicity is the key. You can pick this game up and get right into it without even reading the instructions... just how I like it. Weaving in and out of the trees is constantly exciting, but when you have a real aim as well, it elevates the game to classic status.


Head Over Heels

by Paul Morrison


How do you take the isometric 3D adventure, a staple of Spectrum gaming for years and possibly going a little stale, and stand it on its head? If you're Jon Ritman, you add a second character to play as within the same game, and call it Head Over Heels!

Awwwwww... look at his cute little face!

Awwwwww... look at his cute little face!

As was commonplace with British games, the story behind Head Over Heels was pretty original, not to say funny. The evil world of Blacktooth holds four planets as slaves in its Empire. Nearby worlds are concerned that Blacktooth might now be looking further afield in a bid to expand that Empire. To try and find out what's happening, a pair of spies are sent from the planet of Freedom on a mission to investigate...

This is where we would be heading down the road of the likes of Knight Lore or Ritman's earlier game, Batman. But with two spies to control, each with different abilities but that can be teamed to form a greater force, the game plays in a whole new way. You'll want to get the spies back together again, even if it's just to see how cute they look sitting on top of one another, but then you'll need to split them up again to solve certain puzzles, too.

They should have had one of them in Quazatron.

They should have had one of them in Quazatron.

It's a brilliant piece of game design which makes Head Over Heels much more interesting than it otherwise might have been. There are plenty of devious puzzles to work around, which wouldn't be possible with the standard single character format.  Even the more "normal" puzzles are great fun... pushing a robot Prince Charles into the right place so you can jump on his ears to reach tricky platforms is a right laugh.

With tremendous character in the graphics and those superb puzzles to figure out, I'm still head over heels for Head Over Heels!


Horace Goes Skiing

by Paul Morrison


Many of my favourite Spectrum games hail from the early days, which was when I spent most of my time playing them. Horace Goes Skiing is a perfect example of that. It's by no means a brilliant game, but it is an all-time classic, and it features one of the greatest cult heroes ever.

Horace doesn't ask for much. He's on holiday, and he just wants to pick up a pair of skis and whizz down those pristine snow-covered slopes. Is that really too much to ask? Apparently it is, because this is one ski trip that Horace is destined never to forget...

Run, Horace... run!

Run, Horace... run!

The main problem for Horace is that the ski hire centre (hut) is on the opposite side of the road to the piste. That means he has to cross the busy road, hire some skis, and then cross back over the road to get to the fun.

This part of the game sounds a bit like Frogger, but it's more like the old Activision game, Freeway. You'd expect a ski resort would have a small, winding road at the top of the mountain, but this has a massive eight-lane motorway and it's teeming with cars, motorbikes and massive trucks.

Look at him go.  Even Eddie the Eagle isn't as big a cult hero as Horace.

Look at him go.  Even Eddie the Eagle isn't as big a cult hero as Horace.

Should Horace successfully negotiate the hazardous highway, cough up his ten bucks and make it back to the other side, he can finally hit the slopes. At last! The main aim of the game. Horace must blast his way downhill, through trees and slalom poles, and hopefully cross the finish line at the bottom. He can earn himself some extra cash into the bargain, which could prolong his holiday indefinitely. Hoorah!

It really is a very basic little game, but charming with it and of course it has the appeal of Horace, one of the oddest-looking games heroes in existence. Both of the game sections are enjoyable enough, so that you're always likely to return to it in short bursts. Nice one, Horace.


Jetpac

by Paul Morrison


There were a few games that were released on the Spectrum that I, as a Commodore 64 owner, desperately hoped would be released on my machine. When they weren't, I made up whatever excuses were necessary to go to Spectrum-owning friends' houses so that I could get my fix. Of all these games, the one that I wanted most of all, and never got, was Jetpac.

The first Spectrum games I played were on the 16K version of the machine. That's a tiny amount of memory in this day and age... you can't fit an e-mail into that nowadays. And yet, there was so much imagination and skill on display in some of these games, and Jetpac was probably the finest example of this, for me.

Keep away from the deadly fuzzies!

Keep away from the deadly fuzzies!

It's a simple concept, as you'd expect, but with a touch of humour. As chief test pilot for the Acme Interstellar Transport Company, you're charged with the task of assembling rockets from the kits that have been dropped off across the Galaxy, fuelling them up and taking them to their final destinations.

This isn't as easy as it sounds, as indigenous lifeforms roam the planets and are a bit miffed at your presence. Their touch is deadly, so it's best to stay away from them if possible. If it's not possible, then you're armed with a mega-powerful laser which will show them who's boss. That's more fun anyway. And while you're at it, you might as well help yourself to some of the precious gems that are lying around... perks of the job, after all.

Lasers are awesome.  Look what they can do!

Lasers are awesome.  Look what they can do!

Jetpac is a great arcade-style blaster. It's quite original too, I can't really think of an arcade game that it's based on, as such. It's a fair old adrenaline rush, although after you've played it for a long time you start to suss out its patterns and can last a long time. Even so, the same can be said of even the best arcade games, and Jetpac is a name that will live long in the annals of history.


Jet Set Willy

by Paul Morrison


I've always liked a good platform game, right from the days of Pitfall and Pitfall II on the Atari. It was one of the most commonplace game types in the early days of the 8-bit computers, which meant they ran the gamut from awful to outstanding.

Matthew Smith was responsible for two of the most famous and legendary platform games of all time. His first was Manic Miner, which saw Miner Willy's trials and tribulations while attempting to traverse twenty tricky rooms on a quest for fame and fortune... well, just fortune, actually.

Aaaarrrgh!  What the hell is that?  I'd sell up and move out if that was in my house!

Aaaarrrgh!  What the hell is that?  I'd sell up and move out if that was in my house!

He obviously succeeded, because its sequel, Jet Set Willy, saw our intrepid hero ensconced in his mansion having enjoyed the trappings of his new-found wealth just a little too much. Willy just wants to sleep it all off, but the place is a mess and his maid, Maria, won't let him near the bed until he's cleaned it up.

This is another example of the kind of bonkers-but-brilliant scenario that was dreamed up time and again by our supremely imaginative games programmers. And while Manic Miner was a revelation, it was Jet Set Willy that really captured my imagination.

If pigs could fly... well, they can in this crazy room!

If pigs could fly... well, they can in this crazy room!

JSW is another game that I used to play at a mate's house. It wasn't the leaping and collecting that made the most impact on me, it was the setting and the crazy adversaries. It wasn't just the mental room names like The Banyan Tree and We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg, some of the enemies were downright disturbing. Flapping toilets, dancing rabbits and hideous skulls did their best to put you off venturing any further. And then there was the Nightmare Room, which turned Willy into a flying pig...

I still enjoy a game of Jet Set Willy, even though there are better platform games available now. This one keeps its place in my heart for a number of reasons, not all of them gameplay-related, but its place in world history is assured.


Knight Lore

by Paul Morrison


If Ultimate's Jetpac was a brilliant arcade game, then Knight Lore was revolutionary and positively jaw-dropping. You know it was. You can still remember the first time you played it... you'd never seen anything like it. And neither had I.

When you were used to playing side-scrolling or top-down-view games, the sight of Knight Lore's isometric 3D was incredible. You'd never seen a castle look as amazing as it did here, and the extra dimension added so much in terms of what could be done with the game.

To avoid the guard, Sabreman uses the ageless child's trick... if I can't see him, he can't see me.

To avoid the guard, Sabreman uses the ageless child's trick... if I can't see him, he can't see me.

Poor old Sabreman has been stricken by the werewolf (wulf?)'s curse. The only way he can free himself is by travelling to Castle Knight Lore and placing six individual objects into the wizard's cauldron. Nothing else will do... and to make matters worse, he only has 40 days and 40 nights in which to complete his task!

If you've ever played Knight Lore you know that 40 days and 40 nights is no time at all. In one of the more stunning early game moments, Sabreman's transformation happen more frequently than you'd expect... a day in game time does not last very long!

The famous transformation.  It's not quite Rick Baker, but we loved it.

The famous transformation.  It's not quite Rick Baker, but we loved it.

The 3D effect makes everything look so solid, and it feels it too when you mistime a jump and smash right into something you really needed to avoid. It took some getting used to after the 2D planes of traditional platform games. I never completed it, but it was brillliant fun trying, and it set a standard that proved difficult to match, even for Ultimate themselves.


Nodes of Yesod

by Paul Morrison


Another platform game that really grabbed me was NODES OF YESOD FROM THE ODIN COMPUTER GRAPHICS TEAM! I have to emphasise that, but if you've ever played it you'll know why it's in capitals, having had it shouted at you when the game loaded!

It was a pretty startling moment, having a Spectrum yelling at you like that, but thankfully that's not all that the game is memorable for... not by a long way. Nor is it memorable only for its hero who, courtesy or by way of his programmers, ended up with the most upper-class name in gaming history: Charlemagne “Charlie” Fotheringham-Grunes.

Mmmmmmmoley-moley-moley-moley-moley!

Mmmmmmmoley-moley-moley-moley-moley!

No, Nodes of Yesod is memorable for being a damn good platform game.

Again, this is a game with a terrific sense of humour in its storyline. The bottom line, though, is that signals have been intercepted that are being beamed from the moon, notifying someone, or something, of the weakness of Earth's defences. This must be happening for a reason, and the reason must be bad, so Charlie must hotfoot it to the moon to put a stop to these transmissions. It's a bit worrying that, as he lands, he discovers a red spaceship is already there...

The local flora and fauna look nice, but aren't very welcoming.

The local flora and fauna look nice, but aren't very welcoming.

Nodes is a beautiful-looking game, full of colour and lovely detail. It also features one of the cutest sidekicks in gaming history... a moon mole who, when collected, will eat through certain types of wall in the moon's caverns, thereby opening up new areas for exploration. This is handy, because it seems the transmissions emanate from a curious monolith-type object locked in the centre of the moon, and the only way to open the cavern in which it resides is to collect eight of the Alchiems hidden beneath the moon's surface. So you'll need moley-chops to help you get around.

I love this game. Even when I'm wandering around, completely lost or without hope of finishing the game, it feels a pleasure to play. Even when the red spaceman is pinching my hard-earned Alchiems, I don't get annoyed. Even when I'm getting bounced uncontrollably between space plants, I don't get annoyed. It's a lovely game, and one of my favourite ten on the Spectrum.


R-Type

by Paul Morrison


I've been trying to keep arcade conversions out of my Top Tens where possible... after all, there are so many great original games for these systems that it almost seems a waste to include something that was copied from something that was, despite the best efforts of the programmers, better. But some arcade conversions were such amazing programs that they deserve to be remembered in their own right. R-Type on the Spectrum was one such game.

May the Force be with you!

May the Force be with you!

Everybody knows R-Type. You're the pilot of the legendary R-9 fighter, battling the evil Bydo empire over numerous levels. You can pick up an add-on for your ship, called The Force. You must use this strategically to get through the levels, whether as a shield or extra firepower. Colourful extra weapons can be collected to give you an edge against the enemy.

I was never a massive fan of R-Type in the arcades. It was like the game version of The Timewarp to me... you had to do all the right moves at all the right times or you died. I'm not very good at dancing, and I've not very good at following patterns in games... I like to fly by the seat of my pants. There were lots of scrolling shoot 'em ups in the arcades that I preferred to R-Type.

Paint the whole world with a rainbow!

Paint the whole world with a rainbow!

That being the case, I probably shouldn't include R-Type in this list. However, it's such a miraculous achievement that I feel I have no choice. For everything to move as well as it does, with as much colour as there is... it's an amazing piece of programming. You can't help but be impressed, and you're compelled to keep playing to see if the standard is maintained throughout the whole game.

It is, and Spectrum owners were all the better for it.


Skool Daze

by Paul Morrison


Your school days, it's been said, are the happiest days of your life. I'd like to suggest that whoever said it was home-schooled and educated by a 19-year-old French female au pair, because nothing is further from the truth. You're covered in spots, your voice doesn't know whether to be baritone or contralto, and just as you're getting interested in girls you find that they're already going out with lads that left school years ago and wouldn't be seen dead doing so much as even talking to you in a social capacity.

Nope, your school days are pretty horrible, when all's said and done. All you can hope for is the occasional little victory. And that's where Skool Daze, one of the most ingenious games of all time, comes into the equation.

Harsh. I've just taken a blow to the head, and that smug-looking git dishes out lines?  Someone will pay...

Harsh. I've just taken a blow to the head, and that smug-looking git dishes out lines?  Someone will pay...

Eric is a typical schoolkid. He doesn't really want to go, but he makes his way there every day, hoping to just get through the day with the minimum of hassle. Life isn't like that though, and he finds himself being annoyed by the class bully, the class swot, and those annoying teachers. Worse, Eric hasn't exactly had the best of years academically, and if the headmaster sees his report, he'll tan Eric's hide.

Obviously, that would be bad. So Eric hatches a plan that will make sure that doesn't happen... he's going to steal his report from the school safe! That won't be as easy as it sounds though, as the combination to the safe is held by the teachers! But there is a way to get them to reveal their secrets...

The thing is, once you start playing, that's barely relevant. The fun comes from playing the game your way. It starts with the brilliant ability to name the main characters after your friends, enemies and teachers. The game is so much more fun when you knock that bully from school on his arse.

This is gonna hurt him more than it hurts me.  I'll teach him a lesson he won't forget...

This is gonna hurt him more than it hurts me.  I'll teach him a lesson he won't forget...

Scribbling on blackboards and getting away with it is fantastic fun, too. You couldn't have done it at school, but here you can write whatever you like and, as long as you're not caught, you can sit in your lesson and snigger.  Who didn't name the teachers after their least favourites at school, then snigger as they wrote "MR RICHARDSON SHAGS GOATS!!!" on his blackboard?

Skool Daze is yet another classic example of the brilliant imaginations and creativity within so many of our Eighties programmers. It's also one of the first games where you got more fun out of not playing it properly. It's fondly remembered by so many of us, and with good right. It gets an A+ from me.

Just missed: Ant Attack, Bomb Jack, Commando, Exolon, The Great Escape, Rex, Starquake, Stop the Express, Tranz Am, Trashman