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1001games Part 5: 1983 - The Crash and the ZX Spectrum


1983 was the year of the famous North American video game crash. Going into the year, there were many competing consoles; by 1984, they were all gone. A glut of consoles, overall poor quality of games and high profile duds like E.T. and Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 (Atari rushed them out the door, making the bewildering assumption that there would be no connection between quality and sales) combined to torpedo sales and drive many companies out of the business. Retailers decided that video games had been a fad, which would make it difficult for the NES to break into the market a couple of years later. The industry would recover, of course, but the effects were far-reaching; most noticeably, consoles, up until then mainly made in America, became a Japanese business. There would not be another truly successful console from an American company until Microsoft's Xbox in distant 2001.

With the American market in shambles, it seems like a good time to talk about Europe.

One thing I've noticed repeatedly on the Internet is that "Retro gaming" means something totally different to people from the UK than it does to Americans like myself. Consoles didn't catch on there for a few more years, but home computers were marketed aggressively under the premise that buying your child a computer instead of a video game would be better for them and help them with school. Maybe it did, and these early computers encouraged people to learn to code (some programs would be distributed just as source code, usually in BASIC, which you would have to enter manually), but these computers were also the de facto game consoles for a generation. I'm not saying 80s home computing wasn't popular here in North America - noted successes included the Apple II and Commodore 64 - but the nostalgia gap is plain to see.

The Commodore 64 was popular in the UK as well, along with a system called the BBC Micro and others, but I'll be focusing on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. It's the easiest of the systems to emulate, and seems to be the focus of most of the retro computer gaming tributes I've seen. Now, I've been putting (PC) so far for simplicity's sake, but until the 90s, PC gaming was not the unified platform we now know it as - games had to be ported between these platforms. The Spectrum's games came on ordinary audiocassetes - yes, really, you could theoretically even broadcast one on the radio, tape it and play it in your system. This made games very easy to copy, which might have contributed to the downfall of the Spectrum a few years later. Also, the use of audiocassettes caused long, long, go-make-yourself-a-sandwich long loading times.

0048. I, Robot (Arcade)

Oh man, this game is awesome! How did they make it way back in 1983, and why isn't it more famous? This is a 3D game with real, filled-in polygons; talk about before its time. The brightly colored polygons create a strange, wonderfully abstract environment that makes this feel more like a puzzle game. The object of the game is to paint all of the red blocks blue by walking over them while avoiding enemies and obstacles and minding the giant eye at the end of the stage - if you jump while it's open, you'll get blasted. Between levels, you travel through a field of objects that you'll have to shoot to avoid crashing. There's actually a lot going on in this game, but once you get the hang of it, it couldn't be simpler.

I, Robot also has a very unusual feature - when you start your game, you can choose "Doodle City - The Ungame" to paint an abstract picture instead of playing the game, using the game's various polygonal objects as brushes. The attract mode advertises this feature - "Tired of video games? Burned out on mass destruction? Forget the game. Relax in Doodle City." Yeah, this game actually has quite a wit to it. In the demonstration, a giant face says "The law: no jumping." Your robot says "Oh yeah? Why not?" while jumping around. The eye shoots it and says "That's why."

This game is amusingly creative and way ahead of its time. Unfortunately, it was unsuccessful and few units are confirmed to exist today; thank goodness for emulation. Check it out.

0049. Archon (Various, ZX Spectrum played)

Playing with a ZX Spectrum for my first time, I have to note that the controls are very difficult to get a handle on, as the keyboard lacks arrow keys. Anyway, Archon is a crazy version of Chess where the pieces enter a real-time fight upon coming to occupy the same square. Different pieces have different stats, which are affected by the square they're on. Besides being an interesting take on Chess, Archon also feels like a precursor to the strategy RPG genre, which also features moving pieces on a grid and initiating battle upon contact with opposing pieces.

0050. Star Wars (Arcade)

The original Star Wars arcade game is definitely one of the most memorable movie license games. Instead of trying to cover the whole movie, this game focuses on the most exciting scene - the attack on the Death Star - and reproduces it admirably, in 80s first person wireframe glory. You've got to play this one in the original cabinet - it provides an actual cockpit for you to sit in, making the experience really feel real. A beepy version of the Star Wars theme and some amusingly lo-fi digitized voice clips from the movie add to the atmosphere. It's a lot harder to play with a keyboard than the original flight yoke, but I still successfully blew up the Death Star at least once. I really have to hand it to this one - it's common to be watching a movie and think "this part would be a really cool video game," but rare to be proven absolutely right.

0051. Chuckie Egg (Various, ZX Spectrum played)

Yay, another platformer. I gotta tell ya though, ZX Spectrum control layouts are BIZARRE. This one wants you to press 2 for up, W for down, O and P for left and right, and mystifyingly, M (???) for jump. Mercifully, this game lets you redefine keys, so I set up the more familiar WASD for a more comfortable experience.

This game is really fun! You run around collecting eggs and birdseed while avoiding the big birds climbing around the ladders. Your jumps are low - a more human arc than the superhuman leaps we're accustomed to - but long, and well-suited to getting from platform to platform. Jumping is actually fun in this game, which puts it above most of its contemporaries, where the act is a painfully precise chore. I have to admit, though, through more than five attempts I beat the first two levels flawlessly each time, and just as reliably lost all my lives on level 3. I just can't master the jump onto the moving platforms there.

0052. Dragon's Lair (Arcade)

Dragon's Lair was the first (or at least the first of note) of the FMV games, which bypassed limited hardware by simply playing cinema-quality video off of a LaserDisc or CD and scanning to different scenes depending on whether the player has pressed the right button at the right time. Barely interactive, these games nonetheless were popular for a time, and it's not hard to understand why - in the early 80s, the gorgeous visuals of a game like this must have been truly amazing next to the primitive graphics of contemporary arcade games.

A lot of the terrible FMV games that dominated consoles like the Sega CD were not much of a movie in addition to not being much of a game, but this isn't true of Dragon's Lair due to the involvement of talented director Don Bluth, fresh off of his breakout masterpiece The Secret of NIMH. This game has charm, wit, majesty and fear. Each room is a clever new trap, and the player is rarely more than a second or two away from death. In fact, the various death scenes are actually a large part of the game's entertainment value. Its popularity spawned followups Space Ace and Dragon's Lair II, ports to countless platforms from the Sega CD to the iPhone, and near-totally unrelated versions for platforms with no capability whatever to handle the central gimmick (the NES, for example).

If you want to play the actual arcade version on a PC, there is an emulator for LaserDisc games called Daphne, named after the bubbly, slutty princess from Dragon's Lair (Bluth: "The elevator doesn't go all the way up, but she serves a purpose"). My games ended before long as I couldn't pin down the timing. I ended up watching a YouTube playthrough, which is extremely entertaining; I recommend it. If you want to actually play the game, my research has found that the best port is "Dragon's Lair Trilogy" on the Wii, which apparently has excellent timing and features optional move prompts to make the game far easier, and I'll bet more fun. I'd be tempted to pick it up myself for $30, if I weren't broke.

0053. Gyruss (Arcade)

Like Tempest, this shoot 'em up is played on the outside of a tube; in this case, however, the tube is not visible and the objects look like spaceships instead of abstract vector shapes. Like that game, this one is better with its original controller; however, this game isn't as broken as Tempest when using a keyboard. Actually, it's still quite fun. Every few levels you pass a planet as you get closer to Earth, starting with Neptune. On my second try I managed to get almost to Jupiter and scored over 40k points. This game also features Galaga-like bonus levels where you shoot down streams of enemies; it's easier to get them all if you get the double-shot powerup in the levels by shooting a special enemy that looks like a fuzzy orange ball.

0054. Mad Planets (Arcade)

When you hear the name "Mad Planets," you probably think it refers to the setting, but this game is way more nuts than that. Instead of spaceships or vaccuum-dwelling aliens, your enemies in this game are actually planets. They try to crash into you and fling their moons at you in crazy arcs. You have to shoot their moons and then blow the planets up; it's brilliantly insane. How come nobody else has ever done this?

Unfortunately, we have another game here that's next to impossible to play on a keyboard. You can turn your ship to aim in any direction with a spinner, which is difficult to approximate with buttons or keys. If you ever see this uncommon cabinet, you should give it a look - it's amusingly odd.

0055. M.U.L.E. (Various, NES played)

M.U.L.E. was the first game to be developed for Trip Hawkins's new game company Electronic Arts. It was released for the various 8-bit computers of the time (Commodore 64, Atari 8-bit) and ported to the NES in 1990, which makes playing it way more convenient. Hurray!

This is a turn-based economic sim game where you can select an alien race to play as (each having certain advantages and/or disadvantages) and select the plots of land you're given for farming, mining or energy production by putting a M.U.L.E. (Multiple Use Labor Element, which at least in the NES version looks and sounds like a robotic mule) loaded up for that application on the plot. After each turn, there is an auction between the four players where you can buy or sell these three resources to one another or buy them from the store. Though you compete against the other players (which can be the computer, as they were in my play), there is a certain almost collaborative element because you don't want to totally shut out the other players from the resources they need - without all the players producing, there really isn't enough of the resources to get anywhere.

I couldn't beat the computer - honestly, I might have missed something in the rules, since I couldn't figure out why my plots were producing less than others. Incidentally, I'm still waiting for the first real co-op game in this list, which might be Gauntlet in 1985. Does anybody know of an earlier example?

0056. Planetfall (PC)

Planetfall is the first Infocom text adventure by Steve Meretzky, that company's most famous designer. His games have a pretty good sense of humor - in this one, for example, you meet a buffoon of an alien who blathers on about relations between your races ("he says that all humans look the same to him"), and he hands you a useless brochure. When you drop it, the description of the room you dropped it in says "Unfortunately, that stupid brochure is here." This game elicited quite a few smiles out of me.

In this sci-fi adventure, you (a low-ranking member of the Space Fleet, with standard-issue scrubbing brush) land on a deserted planet and have to find a way off. Along the way, you figure out that this planet's population was wiped out by a plague. Fairly early, you can activate a robot. He identifies himself and follows you around. Floyd is bouncy and manically friendly. He can be pretty funny - when you save the game, he says "Oh boy! Are we about to do something dangerous?" Some might think Floyd annoying, but I think it's nice to have a little company during yet another text adventure spent exploring a deserted world.

Meretzky makes it clear that he's a fan of Douglas Adams's science fiction works by including a towel in this game - if you examine it closely, you'll find the number 42 written on it, a reference to the book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Two years later Meretzky and Adams would collaborate on a text adventure adaptation of that book; rest assured it's on this list.

I got a bit stuck about halfway through this game and gave up, but I bet I could have beaten it with a bit more effort. This game does have some annoyances, however. Compared to recent amateur "Interactive Fiction," which in interest of the player's convenience allows "l object" for "look at object," this game insists on the full sentence. When I typed "look watch" it snapped back at me, "this isn't some primitive two-word parser. If you want to look at something, say so." Honestly, what is gained by making me waste my time typing a longer phrase? I know it's not much longer, but doing it again and again gets old. I don't really want to have to type "slide elevator card through slot" every single time I need to use an elevator, but in PlanetFall I certainly had to. This game also makes you eat and sleep every so often, which is a chore to keep up with and really doesn't add a lot but a drag, in my opinion. Sure, give the player these problems to solve once, but over and over? That's not fun. This is actually a pretty cool adventure with some interesting and funny elements; I just wanted to make it clear that it shows its age in certain unpleasant ways.

0057. Spy Hunter (Arcade)

This might be the most direct game ever. You're a car, and you shoot other cars. Hell, the same pedal that accelerates also causes you to shoot an endless stream of bullets from your front fender. You can also bump most cars to the side, although some have deadly spikes that come from their tires - as far as I can tell, staying directly in front of these is the only way to avoid getting killed by them. Oh, and the Peter Gunn theme plays the whole time. According to the text one of the bridges eventually stops short and you turn into a boat, but I never got that far.

This game is unusual for its time in that it has no lives. Instead, you have unlimited cars as a counter ticks down from 999, and just one after it gets to 0. Although the cabinet had a steering wheel, it's functionally identical to arrow keys. This game is worth a play if only for how awesomely blatant it is about its premise.

0058. Crystal Castles (Arcade)

The unusual sights of Crystal Castles are quite compelling - multi-leveled isometric playgrounds with buildings, elevators and tunnels. As the absurdly cute Bentley Bear ("Oh no!" he says in word balloon when he dies), you have the Pac-Man like goal of collecting all the red gems inexplicably covering every path. Unfortunately, this is another game that suffers from lacking its original controls. The arcade trackball made zipping along the paths easy. Without it, I wouldn't quite call the game impossible to play - you can give it a go with the mouse, and I made it to level 5 - but the awkwardness of control makes things pretty frustrating.

Unusually for an arcade game, this one ends after its thirty-seven levels instead of looping. This game is definitely a curiosity, but I'd hold out for the real cabinet to really play it, unless you own a PC trackball.

0059. Jetpac (Various, ZX Spectrum played)

Jetpac was the first game by Ultimate Play the Game, the English developer which would later become Rare and go on to make many highly-regarded games on Nintendo and Microsoft consoles. After wrestling with another perplexing ZX Spectrum control scheme (a number of keys are mapped to this game's four actions; the most usable combination I found was Y, H, M and ,), I discovered a really fun and exciting game. So many home computer games, especially platformers, of the early 80s are plodding, delicate affairs where great care must be taken not to miss what feels like a perfectly good jump; this is true even of good examples like Chuckie Egg. This is totally untrue of Jetpac, where you gracefully (and quickly!) drift through the air with solid physics, firing your laser with mad abandon. This game is fast-paced and exciting, and a blast once you get the hang of it.

In the first wave, you have to assemble the three pieces of your rocketship, then refuel it by collecting the pink fuel packs that drop at random locations. After the first wave, only refueling is necessary. Because parts and fuel drop onto your rocket simply by being carried directly above it, it's a good idea to spend most of your time on the top part of the screen, where it's slightly safer. Despite MJ Hibbett's reverence for "the thrill of getting through Jetpac," you can't beat this game. Indeed, it doesn't even have real levels - the only thing that changes when you successfully ride your rocket are the enemies. Having said that, I managed to get to wave 7 and score over 10k points. This game has been both ported and remade for the Xbox Live Arcade as Jetpac Refueled - check it out, it's a good time.

0060. Juno First (Arcade)

Juno First is an unusual choice for this list. It's a solid but not particularly remarkable shoot-em-up that isn't terribly widely remembered. Its most noticeable feature is probably the simplest faux-3D effect ever, accomplished by a series of dots that accomplish a sort of perspective. It is pretty cool to be able to see your enemies approaching before they actually enter the playing area. Another neat feature is a bonus item you can get that not only gives you an 800 point bonus, but makes all enemies worth 800 points for a limited time. Other than that, I don't have much to say about this one.

0061. Lode Runner (Various, ZX Spectrum played)

Hooray, another Spectrum game with a redefine keys option! However, I still suck hard at it. Bummer.

In Lode Runner, you climb ladders and collect gold. You can't really call it a platformer on account of a lack of a jump. There is an unusual mechanic in which you can make holes in the floor in front of you for your enemies to temporarily fall into, allowing you to then walk over their heads. You have to be careful, of course, not to fall into your own holes, and of certain floors that are indestructible.

The most interesting thing about this game is its built-in level editor. The game already contains an enormous 150 levels, but gamers made countless others. It can be really amazing what gamers put together when you hand them the creative controls, and to this day not as many games employ this element as ought to.

0062. Manic Miner (Various, ZX Spectrum played)

I know I keep complaining about controls, but you seriously use Q and P to go left and right in this game. WHAT?

Manic Miner, I understand, is one of the most nostalgic platformers for fans of the Spectrum, but due to the strange controls, unforgiving jump and tight placement of hazards, I can't get anywhere at all in it. It's too bad, because it seems remarkably advanced for its time, with elements such as conveyer belts and fall-away platforms. It's a bizarre game with strange color choices and weird enemies, which I guess is part of its charm.

I'm sorry to give such a beloved game such a terse treatment, but I'm out of my element here, having been born in 1985, and this is quite frankly one of the most difficult games I've ever played in my life. It took me a lot of tries to get to the second screen, and after a lot more tries I still never got to the third. If you want to laugh at me, try it yourself first, that's all I've got to say.

0063. Tapper (Arcade)

Tapper is a very early example of the now popular time-management genre, where a number of impatient customers must be juggled, a delicate balancing act. This is a lot faster-paced and simpler than the likes of Diner Dash, however, and much more fun in my opinion.

This colorful (gorgeous for its time, really - you couldn't port this to the NES without losing something graphically) game is sure to get a chuckle out of you. It's foaming over with personality - the griping customers, the self-satisfied bartender, the Budweiser logos everywhere (a rare example of desirable product placement - the game even says "THIS BUDS FOR YOU" when you win the shell game bonus round). You might know this game by its sanitized-for-the-kiddies version Root Beer Tapper, which makes a few graphical changes.

Like I said, this game is a lot of fun. You have to send beers to the customers before they reach the end of the bars. It's fast, but you've actually got to be careful not to send too many beers too fast, as some customers will send their glasses back for a refill, which can get overwhelming. Some will also leave a tip, which you can get for a pretty big bonus (as well as dancing cheerleaders) if you think you can spare the time. Seriously, play this game. It's a riot.

I spent a long, long time on this post. I don't know what made me think 16 games in one post was a good idea. 1984 will be divided into two parts. Please drop me a comment to let me know what you think of the series so far.
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About tim333one of us since 5:53 PM on 12.11.2007

Regarding my 1001games project: There's only one deadline. I haven't hit it yet!

I'm a 90s gamer and Sega kid for life. I like platformers, adventure games and JRPGs. I'm not that into first-person shooters or sports games.

I spend more of my time playing older games than new ones. I do have a PS3 now, though, and I like buying games on PSN. I like the Wii and have a ton of games for it. I'm encouraged by some of the stuff out on Wiiware - to me, games like Bit.Trip Beat are more appealing than the "triple-A" titles coming out on the HD consoles.

Some of my all-time favorite games are Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Dragon Quest III, Heroes of Might and Magic III, The Curse of Monkey Island, and Dance Dance Revolution.