Max Out: The Max Headroom computer game remembered

Did you know Max Headroom got turned into a computer game in the 1980s? Rob wishes he could forget about it...

The year is 1986 and we are ’20 minutes into the future’, as the cult of Max Headroom grows across the media, infecting TV, films and music as well as the growing home computer market.

As a kid I loved Max Headroom and having many a conversation in the playground which went something like this

(kid 1) ‘He is real. It’s a bloke in a rubber mask’(Me…quite naively) ‘No he is not, he is computer generated’‘No…he is, and you are a Joey!’ (getting my arm punched at the same time)

I really did wish he was computer generated for two reasons. Firstly, obviously, it would have stopped me getting my arm punched, and secondly, I had a vivid imagination as a kid and would have loved to have had a computer that was that futuristic and could talk back to you.

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Alas I was wrong, and of course it was actor Matt Frewer who was under the latex, but wouldn’t it have been great to have a computer like this? So when I heard news that Max was making his way onto the home computer I thought maybe, just maybe he would be like he is in the show but boy was I in for a disappointment.

I had a Spectrum and of course the standard games, as well as a few unique bits and piece bought from local newsagents. However, I personally never possessed a copy of the Max Headroom game. Yet a friend of mine did, and one Saturday afternoon I remember, very, very briefly seeing it in his computer game drawer and insisting on playing it. To be fair, he warned me it was rubbish.

I was a huge fan of the show, and remember having a copy of the film that I had recorded on our first video player. I watched it to death so was very insistent that we played it. However I should have taken his advice and left it well alone, as even at the tender age of eleven, it was still nearly an hour of my life I will never get back.

Created by developers Binary Design and released by Quicksilva, the Official Max Headroom was of course the licensed game based on the show and movie. This, rightly should send a shudder down any old-school gamers’ spine, as the dreaded movie tie-in license was a sure sign that the game would be on the, well, crap side. It didn’t help that Max Headroom took just a few months to develop, and then a couple of weeks to convert to other platforms. The signs weren’t good.

Originally released on the Spectrum, the game was ported across to the Commodore 64, Amstrad and also the newly minted Amiga – although with a bit of research it looks like the game on the Amiga was just a port across from the C64 version. The game follows on from the film and has reporter Edison Carter trying to reclaim Max from Network 23 (N23) and its band of heavies.

Now you would think with the whole cyberpunk thing going on the game would be a quantum leap in technology, or at least gameplay, but you would be wrong. William Gibson must have shaken his head in shame that his newly coined phrase was used to try and sell this abysmal license.

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Most of the game took part in a set of office buildings that saw you trundle a basic sprite representation of Carter around various floors, with oh-so-exciting things such as opening doors, switching lights on and off and unlocking elevators. The only really unique aspect of the game being a set of motion sensor/wall mounted machine guns that deployed if Carter was not careful and accidentally triggered an alarm, left a switch unswitched or (shock) left a light on in the wrong room. It’s harsh punishment really, and wouldn’t be tolerated in today’s world of energy-efficient light bulbs.

This really was a text-book and very standard release. It was essentially a simple arcade adventure that could have been any generic title. The only thing really making it a Max Headroom game was the box it came in. The game was repetitive, tedious and just downright dull, with a lot of pre-generated sprites littering identikit offices, along with floors which you had to slowly navigate to retrieve four pieces of computer code with you would eventually link together to bring Max back online. Supposedly if you actually did this then the end of game sequence was a piece of pre-recorded Max Headroom speech thanking you for saving him. I must admit I never got this far. I had a life to lead.

Like many TV or film licenses, this was a huge disappointment. However the game, on the back of its box art and the obvious cash-in nature of the license, sold 20,000 copies. I suspect like myself and my friend, there were a lot of Spectrum and C64 users who were hugely disappointed with the whole thing and should really have spent the tenner – and more importantly time – on Monty Mole, Manic Miner or Horace Goes Skiing instead. Ho hum.