The top 50 underappreciated ZX Spectrum games
The humble Spectrum was home to some remarkable games - including these underappreciated masterpieces...
I, like many, spend many years playing Spectrum games. I defended the computer in the school playground, I kept playing with the machine long after everyone had migrated to likes of the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, and I spent an unsavoury amount of my meagre pocket money building up my games collection.
However, a lot of lookbacks at the Spectrum era tend to focus on the big highlights. What I wanted to do here is put together a personal listing of 50 titles that don't seem to get that much attention.
So, if you're wondering why Gollop brothers games, anything by the late, great Mike Singleton, the acclaimed works of Ultimate, the likes of Exolon, Head Over Heels, Advanced Lawnmower Simulator, Match Day, Batty, Wizball, Firefly, Nebulus, Fairlight, The Sentinel, Elite, Uridirum, Bubble Bobble, The Great Escape, and so on aren't here? That's why.
I've tried really hard, accepting one or two are higher profile, to cover games that generally don't seem to get talked about much. A good number of these are legally available via the emulation scene too. I can't recommend World Of Spectrum enough (link at the bottom) to explore these more.
These, then, are the games I rarely hear about, but that robbed me of too much of my youth than I'd ever care to admit...
50. ROCK STAR ATE MY HAMSTER
Let's start with a game that, in truth, I knew wasn't much cop at the time I forked out nine quid for it. And yet I couldn't stop playing it. Rock Star Ate My Hamster was only the second full price release for Codemasters, and the idea was to put together a successful rock band, and take them to the top of the charts. Sadly, your rock band would always prove to be a cursed venture, given the number of times members of your group would do. I lost more lives playing Jet Set Willy. And yet, there was something really quite compelling about it all...
49. GRAND NATIONAL
The low development cost of Spectrum games meant niches could be easily explored. Horse racing has never been served particularly well by computer games (D&H's strategy title The National was worth a try, even if you missed three birthdays by the time it had done all its calculations). Grand National, though, showed that there was something in the idea of letting you ride a horse in the infamous race of the game's name. It certainly wasn't easy (that's an understatement), and it never captured any sense of pace. But still, it was a lot more fun than it's generally been given credit for.
48. TRANTOR: THE LAST STORMTROOPER
Not a great game this, in truth, but it makes it here for a slightly different reason. It rose to prominence after being included on a demo tape stuck to the front of Crash magazine, back when such demo tapes were a real novelty. It was the graphics that impressed. Trantor boasted visuals that the Spectrum wasn't supposed to be capable of, and for a while, there was a riposte to the graphics argument whenever the playground battle of the 8-bit computers took hold. Said argument lasted up until the release date of the game which was where the happiness ended. Trantor turned out to be a hollow shell of a game really, but as a showcase for what the Spectrum could do? It was a big step forward...
An adventure game that time is threatening to forget, what made Valhalla so interesting was the visual element to it. The crude graphics may kid you otherwise, but in 1983, a game where characters seemed to walk in and out on a whim was something really quite different. While the underlying adventure itself was never particularly strong, Valhalla was, even though you may not believe it now, a game that was simply good fun to sit and watch. Little Computer People, which was only available for the 128k Spectrum, was the same, albeit tonally a lot, lot different.
46. FORMULA ONE
Formula One management titles generally miss the balance between detail and accessibility, in the way that the best Football Manager releases have managed. CRL's 1985 game Formula One got surprisingly close. It showed the races from a fixed position, so basically you got to see the cars as they whizzed past the lap marker. But it still found space to fuse in enough strategic elements to make it feel as though you could make a difference. It got easy by the time you'd built your team up, but the journey there was excellent.
45. CASTLE MASTER
Incentive Software's technically remarkable Freescape system predated the first person shooter, albeit without the pace, by many, many years. But for me, the games often never matched up to the technology on show. Driller, Dark Side and Total Eclipse all had merits, but it wasn't until Castle Master, for my money, that the Freescape system played host to a really compelling adventure. A sequel followed, but the original, as you explore a dangerous castle, remains the best. It helps that Freescape had evolved to the point where a little more pace could be injected, too.
As the world got ready for a home computer version of the arcade machine Road Blasters, Elite stole just a little of its thunder with Overlander. It too involved cars, and it too crucially involved cars with weapons. Set in the year 2025, Overlander sees you driving cargo across vast deserts, in a world that's been ravaged by the long-gone Ozone layer. The driving bit, at heart, was never particularly demanding, but the opposition you meet? Different story. And while I can't say that Overlander was necessarily a better game than Road Blasters, it did have enough to it to make it an equal.
43. THE MUNCHER
The ZX Spectrum version of the coin-op Rampage left a little bit to be desired. However, Gremlin Graphics teamed up with, er Chewits sweets (an aside: Fizzy Chewits, along with Roy Of The Rovers Pineapple Flavoured Chewbars, are the best confectionery of the 80s) to basically out-Rampage Rampage.
The basic idea was that The Muncher, a monster from Chewits television adverts, was on the rampage. And you had to stop him. Featuring big, bold graphics, it was all a bit of a hoot. No classic, but lots of fun. A bit like Chewits, really.
42. RUN THE GAUNTLET
Based on the television show of the same name, Run The Gauntlet's laborious loading system may have made it all a bit unbearable at times, but fortunately, it proved to be worth the wait. Not every individual event gelled. The driving and boating elements were great fun, but The Hill proved to be a real shit. It's not quite on the same difficult level as the infamous Airwolf Spectrum game, but it's not far off. Still, there was always enough in Run The Gauntlet to make it worth digging the tape out.
One of the many impressive arcade conversions that seems to have been buried in the history of 8-bit computing, Karnov put you in the shoes of a fire-breathing brute. It was at this stage of my life that I worked out it might be quite fun to be a fire breathing brute, but my mutations failed to deliver the goods. Bah. Still, Karnov was a hoot. There was a lot to battle through, and it hardly ripped up the platform game rule book. But strong execution always did count for a lot, and that was certainly the case here.
The glut of Gauntlet clones that emerged in the mid-80s gave the Spectrum some terrific games. Into The Eagle's Nest and Dandy are both strong, but it was Graftgold's Ranarama that was the best of the lot. It lacked multiplayer, but there was just a little more to it than its rivals. Set across an assortment of dungeons, and with the challenge just a little more involving, it naturally went on to sell less than most of the titles it was up against. Bah.
Just as the build-up to Gauntlet appearing on the Spectrum brought with it a series of clones, so the impending Operation Wolf attracted interest. Ocean published Operation Wolf, of course, but also put out arguably its most impressive rival, Cabal. A conversion of the Taito coin-op of the same name, the gimmick here was that it was an Operation Wolf style shooting gallery title, albeit with your character in the foreground. The game behind it all, though, was one of the Spectrum's more accomplished shooters. And just look at that loading screen!
The Spectrum, from the early stages of its life through to its retirement years, was always a home of good puzzle titles. It does sometimes feel as though Gremlin's Deflektor has got lost in the mix (Einstein-focused e-Motion, too). Teaching just a bit of science, the idea was to gradually alter a series of mirrors so that a beam could hit its target on the other side of the screen. It was a taxing little beast at times, not aided by an eager time limit. It was the work of Costa Panayi, who was also responsible for the excellent Highway Encounter and Tornado Low Level.
37. CHUCKIE EGG 2
The original Chuckie Egg is rightly regarded as a classic of 8-bit computing. Broadening out the scale of the game for Chuckie Egg 2, away from a single screen format, did pay dividends though. It's not as strong as the first game, and indeed, reviews at the time were really quite sniffy (it didn't help that a previous attempt to mount a sequel was abandoned when programmer Nigel Alderton left the publisher), but it deserves more credit than it got. Sure, the frantic nature of the original might be gone, but there's still an expansive and challenging platform game to be enjoyed.
36. FAT WORM BLOWS A SPARKY
No home computer in history has attracted game names of the ilk that the ZX Spectrum attracted. Can you imagine any modern publisher now putting out a title called Fat Worm Blows A Sparky? Thankfully, there was an excellent game behind the bizarre title, as you played - and I don't make this up - a worm. More to the point, a worm that's been chased around the circuit board of the Spectrum itself. Beyond daft, but actually quite progressive in the way it used vectors, author Julian Todd has since blogged about his thoughts on the game. It's well worth a read.
As he points out, Fat Worm has its problems, but its quirks, ambition and fun factor remain unblemished by time.
It might have had next to nothing to do with the movie, but Ocean's Spectrum game of Sylvester Stallone movie Cobra felt like a proper arcade title. The idea, and this is a surprising rarity in videogame history, was to basically headbutt as many people out of the way as you could, at least until you got hold of some hardware. I went through phases on this one too. Sometimes, I could blast through it no problem, others I died within meeting four foes. Obviously, that was always the game's fault. Always wanted one more go though...
34. DAN DARE 3
Virgin put out a trio of Dan Dare games, and the first one is rightly regarded as something of a classic. The second, less so. Dan Dare 3, meanwhile, was terrific fun, boasting bold graphics, and more than a little tip of the hat to R-Type. Beautifully garish, with the Mekon the perfect villain for a Speccy title, Dan Dare 3 is the kind of game that the Spectrum wasn't really supposed to be able to do. It didn't start off life as a Dan Dare sequel, which probably helped. Turned out to be a really good one, though.
A corking little budget game, as you had to defend a futuristic city from a plague of insects. It's simple enough, plagued by troubling controls, but the mix of strategy and action, combined with the amount of game you got for very little money, made it worth seeking out. I played this one for ages, and suspect I'm not alone...
32. SUPER SCRAMBLE SIMULATOR
The title of this one did publisher Gremlin few favours. It made it sound more like a Codemasters budget game, rather than a full price, excellent and ridiculously good fun motorbike scrambling title. I was originally going to put Enduro Racer in the list, but the more I thought about it, I simply had a lot more fun with Super Scramble Simulator, with the relatively big graphics and challenging courses standing out. The biking game that gets talked about the most on the Spectrum seems to be the wonderful Kickstart II, which is, of course, worth seeking out. You shouldn't take my word for it though. I spent too long addicted to the bloody Milk Race game, after all.
31. TECHNO COP
Can't afford the RoboCop licence? No bother. A quick flick through the thesaurus, and you have the generally disliked Techno Cop. The gimmick here was that there were two elements to the game - the driving, and the bit where you got out of the car to dispense justice. The racing part was arguably the best, but in spite of the middling to decent reviews the game attracted, it never seemed to have too many fans, and paled in comparison to Ocean's excellent RoboCop game. That said, Techno Cop was never short of ambition, and while it's not held up well, inevitably, it's a good way to do what was effectively a bit of a knock-off.
Loved this, even if I didn't warm to its sequel quite as much. Play testing was rarely a big feature of early Spectrum releases, and that may account for why Cauldron - a game that put you in the warty nose of witch - was so bleedin' hard. The origins of the game are in the John Carpenter classic movie Halloween (the same publisher put out a game of The Evil Dead), and it married up a segment where you flew around on your broomstick shooting things, and then a more traditional platformer. Off the back of the success of Cauldron and Cauldron II, incidentally, its programmer, Steve Brown, was given the greenlight to go ahead and make the gorefest that became Barbarian...
29. FOOTBALLER OF THE YEAR 1 & 2
Oh, I know they weren't very good really. But just as with Virgin's F.A. Cup Football (where you had to manage ten teams at once!), I played both Footballer Of The Year games a lot. Both hinged around the idea of you being one player, looking to build up your career. Depending on which of the two games you were playing, you did this via goal cards, trivia quizzes, transferring from team to team, and buying attempts on goal during a match. It was all a bit of a mess, but surprisingly gripping. That said, New Star Soccer has come along and done it all a lot better now, while marrying it up to the idea behind Anco's 16-bit hit, Player Manager (Avenger: Way Of The Tiger 2, advertised on the billboard in the screenshot above, is also still worth digging out).
I never got on with Marble Madness and Gyroscope on the Spectrum in the way that I think I was supposed to. For guiding a ball around, I instead went for Gremlin's Trailblazer (the Spectrum never had a decent version of Bounder, after all). Basically, you guide your ball along a road that's constantly coming towards you. And that's when the assorted obstacles and different tiles with different effects kicks in. Hair would frequently be pulled out when the bastard ball kept falling off the edge though. I've never forgiven Trailblazer for that.
The first budget game I, and many of us, ever bought for the Spectrum. Published on British Telecom's Firebird label, Booty was a rough around the edges, pirate-centric platform game, that I hold a special affection for seeing as it was the only game I could afford at the time I got it. It wasn't massive, with just 20 screens to venture through, and there's not much originality to the idea of picking up lots of treasure. It snuck up on you though, and while it was always easy to pick holes in, Booty consistently entertained. It boasted some of the finest colour clash to be seen on Sir Clive's old baby, too.
26. BIONIC COMMANDO
As it reached the peak of its powers, the ZX Spectrum played host to some increasingly strong arcade conversions. Rainbow Islands remains the daddy of them all, and The New Zealand Story isn't too far behind. I was torn between saluting either the 128k version of Bionic Commando or Midnight Resistance (both of which were strong in the audio department, incidentally), and the former won on points. I think because it's a game that not only worked a treat, but given the angles you need to fire your arm gadget at, it lent itself well to the Spectrum's keyboard controls too. It was the closest we had to the feeling of Spider-Man on the Spectrum. A shame the modern day take on Bionic Commando didn't manage that.