The top 50 underappreciated ZX Spectrum games
The humble Spectrum was home to some remarkable games - including these underappreciated masterpieces...
Here's part two of our countdown....
25. MAKE A CHIP
The ZX Spectrum+ game bundled with a six pack of software at first, that included Chequered Flag (overrated but ambitious), Scrabble (hilarious, once you worked out it'd take any made up word. 'Bamfrilly' on triple word remains a highlight) and word processor Tasword Two.
The oddity, and the attempt to make the pack educational, was Make A Chip. I hated it at first, clearly just wanting to play the games. But I kept getting drawn back to it, not least because I couldn't afford too many games. And while I can't sit here and tell you I had a blast with it, I'm still thinking about it nearly three decades later.
Make A Chip was basically the program, not even vaguely convincingly disguised as a game, that demonstrated remarkably clearly how chips worked, and how they fitted into circuit design. Billed as a tool to teach you how computer logic worked, it was, in hindsight, the one title in that pack of six that still works perfectly well today. Even if there's a bit of you that'd rather be playing Technician Ted (not included in this list, incidentally, because I've read lots and lots of pieces on how much people love it).
24. SHOCKWAY RIDER
A large sprinkle of science fiction overhangs the concept to Shockway Rider, where instead of walking around on pavements, the people of the future travel along moving Shockways. Sadly, so do nasty people, along with numerous grannies, and thus riding them is a dangerous game. It's a good job weapons are at hand.
It did all get a little samey by the time you got near the end, but I wanted to include Shockway Rider because for the first hour, it was amazing. There's a drop of Frogger to it as you jump between the Shockways moving at different speeds, and the surprisingly good graphics serve the game well. But I think I also just loved the idea. As did, seemingly, the planners of every airport constructed since...
23. MY NAME IS UNCLE GROUCHO, YOU WIN A FAT CIGAR
Publisher Automata routinely got on my nerves for making you reload a game at the end of each turn. Fortunately, each turn lasted a while. My Name Is Uncle Groucho, You Win A Fat Cigar was a bumbling title, based around, er, Groucho Marx (Charlie Chaplin would get his own computer game too in time, a beat 'em up disguised as a movie making simulator). It was a brash text adventure, that rewarded outright madness if you wanted to make your way through it. For a whole generation, it was their first introduction to the Marx brothers. Me included.
22. AUF WIEDERSEHEN, MONTY
Some gaming series I never fully warmed to on the Spectrum, which is why there are none of the Wally games here. And truthfully, I struggled a bit with some of the Monty Mole titles. I did love Wanted: Monty Mole a lot though. I do appreciate that Monty Mole is pretty well known, but the reason I've mentioned it here is that it's the controversy that attracts a lot of the attention (due to purported links with the miner's strike of the 1980s), yet it's the game that was brilliant. Auf Wiedersehen Monty was the best one for me though (hence its listing here). It was where every idea seemingly got crammed into the game, as the Speccy's favourite mole traversed Europe with a verve rarely seen since Trashman went globe trotting.
Impossamole was a mess, though, and a sad swansong...
21. TRAP DOOR
Don Priestley will forever be credited with bringing big, colourful chunky graphics to the ZX Spectrum. Had I played it, his take on Minder may well have made this list. I also had a soft spot for Flunky, where your job was to wait on royalty (bloody hard though). But Trap Door was special. For starters, the TV series that it's based on was excellent. But the way the game captured the characters and wit of it, and wrapped it into a fun puzzler remains impressive. The sequel, Through The Trap Door, was faster and more efficient. Trap Door felt like a tighter game though, and a real breakthrough. It deserves more love that it seems to get.
It seems bizarre that the Spectrum's best Breakout clone appeared in the end on a magazine covertape and never got a full price release (that'd be Batty). The two Arkanoid titles were strong too, although level three of Arkanoid could rightly be described as 'a bit of a bastard'. Krakout remains the forgotten one though, but it was just as devilishly addicted. It felt a little different too, given that it pretty much literally turned the game on its side. There are lots of bonuses, lots of levels, and, truthfully, far too many elements thrown into the mix. But it always was a bit underrated, and I always appreciated the fact that it was trying something just a little different with something oh-so-familiar.
19. MATCH POINT
The best tennis game on the ZX Spectrum was, if I've got my dates right, the first. Sure, the likes of Passing Shot came along later, with much fancier visuals, but Match Point got the mechanics of the game itself bang on. It's a pity a sequel never came along to expand upon that core gamplay, but it wasn't until Sega unleashed Virtua Tennis in the 90s that, for my money, Match Point was beaten.
18. BATMAN: THE CAPED CRUSADER
Is this the forgotten Batman game? The Spectrum played host to the wonderful isometric puzzle Batman (which until Arkham Asylum and Arkham City came along, was the best videogame version of the iconic character for me. Ryan wrote about it here, in his look at how DC characters had fared in videogames. In that same feature, he mentioned Batman: The Caped Crusader, a comic-book feel action adventure, that boasted devious puzzles and a wonderful visual style. It had two stories to work through, and it eschewed the action that's prevalent in most Batman games for a heavy focus on the character's detective origins. That said, when the Batman: The Movie game came along, it seemed to be forgotten about again. A shame.
Confession: I actually eventually wore my copy of Wriggler out, so never got to see the end of it. Published by the gloriously-named Romantic Robot (mainly known for its Multiface devices), Wriggler is a game about four maggots going for a race. You played one of those maggots and, bluntly, your chances of seeing the end of the game were negligible, irrespective of whether you wore the tape out. The need to constant find food, while avoiding the many nasties on the race route, was tough enough. The fact that the other maggots were near-impossible to beat didn't help either. I've since read that the game featured 256 screens to navigate. I'd be amazed if I saw half of them. Still, this is comfortably computing's best ever maggot simulator. Put that on the box.
16. JUMPING JACK
If you were old enough to have a Dragon 32, then you might remember Jumping Jack under the guise of Leggit on that machine. For the Spectrum though, it was Jumping Jack, a simple game that just required you to jump to the top of the screen.
Naturally enough, this was easier sid than done, with gaps appearing to jump through, and then, as they made their way down the screen, appearing under you feet. Think of it as a moving version of snakes and ladders. With, er, no snakes, and no ladders. Very, very addictive though.
15. JOE BLADE III
Players built up quite a reputation for compelling, well-presented budget games, with Colin Swinbourne's Joe Blade proving to be a real breakthrough for the firm. It was Joe Blade II that proved the massive critical and commercial success though, but for my money, it's comfortably the weakest of the trilogy. Way too easy, Joe Blade II wasn't bad, but the game that followed, Joe Blade III, was genuinely excellent. For some reason, it never really took off, but it expanded on the game mechanic in a far better way, and got the balance right between challenge and polish. One of the best budget games every to grace the Spectrum.
14. TRACK SUIT MANAGER
Football management titles proved to be a welcome source of business for many 8-bit publishers (I could have easily gone for The Double here, or Professional Soccer). They also fuelled a lively self-publishing business for some companies, and Goliath Games was one of those. Its game, Track Suit Manager, went up against Football Manager 2, and while it may not have won the box office battle, it certainly proved to be a hugely ambitious game. Its key gimmick, which had more substance to it than you might first think, was running text commentary. It worked well too. And while Track Suit Manager was focused on international football management only, it was one of the best of its ilk on the Spectrum.
13. KNIGHT TYME
The Magic Knight series of games deserve to go down in folklore, as evidence as to just how exciting and interesting the budget software scene was on the ZX Spectrum. Finders Keepers and Spellbound were both strong, but Knight Tyme was the best for me. It was far more adventure driven than Finders Keepers, and marked the peak of the series, before Stormbringer finished the Magic Knight games off. To be fair, any four of the Magic Knight titles are still worth trying. The Dizzy games were good, but it's surely Magic Knight that's the best budget series of all time on the Speccy.
12. ERIC AND THE FLOATERS
I've lost way too much time of late to the massively multiplayer online take on Bomberman, Bombermine. We wrote about it here. But the roots of Bomberman lie in Hudson Soft's earlier piece of work, Eric And The Floaters. Crucially, it got the core dynamic in place and working from the off too, in that you lay bombs to blow other people up, while getting out of the way yourself. Plus, let's face it, Eric And The Floaters is an extraordinarily brilliant name for a computer game. Nobody can ever convince me otherwise.
The Spectrum had two excellent Thunderbirds games. The later one, from Grand Slam, tends to be the most remembered (and remains strong). But the earlier Firebird published version (that came in a chunky cassette box) kept me busy for hours. It was a game that used the ships of Thunderbirds and turned them into a puzzle game, as you worked out which craft you needed for which job. It was terrible to look at, but a real time gobbler to play.
10. SPLIT PERSONALITIES
Originally published as Splitting Images before some lawyers wrote a couple of letters, Split Personalities was a computerised version of sliding square puzzle games. Fortunately, quirks were introduced, and they transformed the game into one of the Spectrum's very best puzzle games. The simple use of bombs and a constant countdown to battle against, along with some familiar, characterised faces to put together, made Split Personalities an absolute blast. Surely ripe for an iOS and Android version too...
9. SOFTWARE STAR
The finest beard of the ZX Spectrum era belonged to Kevin Toms, who's best known for the Football Manager series. Toms also wrote a political strategy game, President, but his forgotten gem was Software Star. It was always going to be a title with niche appeal (although D&H put out Software House, on its Cult label, many years later), as the idea was to put together a successful games publisher. Key decisions, which are played out in the industry on a day to day basis, include whether to hype a game up or keep it honest. And should you release a game early, or put in some extra development hours? Simple decisions maybe, but the tension when it came time to release a new title was palpable.
Game Dev Story, for the iPhone, is the only game to really capture the spirit of Software Star since.
8. BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
Tools such as the The Quill, Graphic Adventure Creator (GAC) and the Professional Adventure Writer (PAW) saw a resurgence in the text adventure towards the end of the Spectrum's active life. And for me, it was the Behind Closed Doors games from Zenobi Software that marked the peak. The Spectrum has plenty of acclaimed, humorous text adventures - The Boggit and Bored Of The Rings stand alone - but Behind Closed Doors deserves recognition for both its comedy and its imagination. It's, basically, a hugely entertaining collection of games about being locked in the toilet. You'd never see that on a PlayStation...
7. TURBO ESPRIT
And you thought it was Grand Theft Auto that introducing the whole driving wherever you like around a city mechanic. Durrell Software published games that were notoriously rock hard, but that shouldn't cloud some of the firm's technical achievements. Turbo Esprit was a game where you could ignore the plot if you wanted, and just go for a drive around a seemingly living city (complete with traffic lights to, er, obey). Four free-roaming cities were included in the game to explore, and while the main game was arguably less interesting than the technical breakthroughs here, it was long before Rockstar struck gold in learning that there's a lot of fun to be had going off piste.
6. GHOULS 'N' GHOSTS
I maintain that, outside of perhaps Rainbow Islands and Ping Pong, Ghouls & Ghosts - particularly on the 128k - was about as good a coin-op conversion as the Spectrum ever got. It was nothing special to look at, in truth, but it built on the already-impressive Ghosts 'N' Goblins, and with some style. Any game that reduces you to underwear when the undead get to you has to earn some credit from the off. As it turned out, Ghouls 'N' Ghosts had an excellent platform game underneath all the humour. The last level's a killer, though.
5. TRAVEL WITH TRASHMAN
A controversial release, this one. The original Trashman made much entertainment out of collecting people's dustbins (in theory, a game about picking up rubbish was a gift for critics looking for a lazy headline. Fortunately, Trashman was excellent). Travel With Trashman sent the title character on a litter-collecting adventure around the world. Thus, you had to choose which job you could afford to take, and make sure you collected enough rubbish before your money ran out. The controversy arose with a part of the game which required you to collect tissues dropped at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. To my knowledge, no videogame game before it or since has asked you to do the same.
Travel With Trashman was, being blunt, brutally difficult, as the clock barely ever stopped ticking. But it was damn addictive too, and had circumstances prevailed, then a third game would have followed. However, while it was started, Trashman Through Time was ultimately abandoned. Author Malcolm Evans was also responsible for 3D Monster Maze on the ZX81, incidentally. That one had no rubbish in it.
Two quid they asked for Pippo. Two measly pounds. For one of the most criminally addictive Spectrum games I think I ever played. The core concept, of jumping from square to square to change the colour of them, had of course been done before (hello, Q*Bert!). Pippo executed it really, really well though, before then adding in creatures, pick-ups, and a big blob of a creature at the heart of it all. In more litigation-prolific times, the author of Pippo may well have been sent a letter. As it stood, they took someone else's already strong idea, added some quirks, and made it even better. Comfortably, for me, one of the ten most addictive games to ever grace the Speccy.
The finest isometric adventures on the Spectrum would have to be Jon Ritman's duo, Batman and Head Over Heels. But Imagine's M.O.V.I.E. was quite brilliant too. I'm going to talk about another game shortly that was draped in the clothes of Hollywood detective noirs, but M.O.V.I.E. was rooted in them from the off (not for nothing is it said to have influenced L.A. Noire). Inevitably slow moving, M.O.V.I.E. was and is utterly engrossing, and it was just a shame that its pseudo follow-up, Phantom Club, never worked anywhere near as well. M.O.V.I.E. though is a treat.
2. CONTACT SAM CRUISE
You think Microsphere, and the games that instantly spring to mind are the rightly-regarded Skool Daze and Back To Skool. Both of them are the kind of games that either wouldn't get past a pitch meeting now, or would be subverted into something 'edgier', along the lines of Bully.
There is a sort-of forgotten Microsphere title, built around the same technology that powered the Skool games, and the glorious detective yarn, Contact Sam Cruise. Written by David Reidy, with Keith Warrington providing the distinctive graphics, Sam Cruise is a private detective who could have been pulled out of any number of noir movies of old. The scope and scale remains impressive today, and the underlying humour is just one example of the attention to detail at work. The only thing that lets the side down slightly is the catapulting over bullets being aimed at you. Which was and is a bit of a sod.
More than anything though, Contact Sam Cruise was and is a blast to play. Tragically, it would prove to be the last game David Reidy would write. Disillusioned with the poor sales for Contact Sam Cruise, and finding his old fashioned way of designing games (pen and paper beat assemblers, apparently) difficult to continue with, Reidy elected not to jump aboard the 16-bit bandwagon, and went on to become an electrical engineer. There's a lovely interview with him here.
Contact Sam Cruise, then, remains his final game. It's a flat-out classic, not without its problems, but a delight that videogame history should not forget.
1. DYNAMITE DAN 1 & 2
The ZX Spectrum had no shortage of quality platform games in truth, but it's generally Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, both grounded in wonderful insanity, that tend to be the most fondly remembered. However, history should not forgot the gloriously addictive Dynamite Dan games.
Pushing the Spectrum hard on both the audio and visual fronts, the goal of Dynamite Dan was simple: collect stick of dynamite. Objects were in different places each time you played, and assorted power-ups were available. The goal was to defeat the evil Dr Blitzen, and there were umpteen foes and obstacles in your way. Using the word 'addictive' barely comes close to covering Dynamite Dan though. And even though the best I ever managed was seven of the sticks of dynamite required, Dynamite Dan was my go-to game for a good two to three years. It was the loyal puppy of the Spectrum years, always by your side, and never failing to entertain.
The sequel expanded the already broad scale of Dynamite Dan, and crucially managed to keep the focus and what made the first game so wildly entertaining, in fact. It's a shame that Dan's adventures stopped after two outings, but both of them are most certainly worth tracking down. They might not be the best ever games to grace the Spectrum, but they deserve to be showered with a lot, lot more love than they usually are. Great music, too...
The Rocky Horror Show (not a very good game, but bizarrely intriguing. The Time Warp through a Spectrum sound system is something to behold).
Sweevo's World/Hydrofool. Both brilliant, but just I figured they were reasonably well known, if not always as appreciated as they should be.
Jack The Nipper In Coconut Capers. The original Jack The Nipper is rightly lauded, but the second deserves mention. The new environment never felt quite right, but the mischief making was still priceless.
Green Beret: Kids! Knife the bad guys! Good job the Daily Mail didn't have a Spectrum. Corking arcade conversion, though.
Rick Dangerous. Just to say that I hated it. The most unfair videogame I think I've ever played.
Hewson: I just wanted to highlight a pair of Hewson titles that often get overlooked. Eliminator is one, but Maze Mania was a lot, lot better than people gave it credit for.
Minder: I never played it, but lots of people tell me it's great. Thought I'd better mention it. Hammerfist, too.
Brewery: My parents bought me a pack of seemingly home-grown management simulations once upon a time, and, worryingly, the one I got hooked on was Brewery, where you basically had to make and sell your own beer. It was pretty crude, save for the graphic of all the unsold beer being poured away. Was I the only person on the planet to play this one?
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