Z is for ZX Spectrum memories. Today’s collection of alphabetised tidbits is topsy-turvy and liberally sprinkled with childhood memories in honour of Clive Sinclair, the computer pioneer and electric vehicle visionary who died last week. Like many of my generation who ended up either making games or assaying them, when I was happily dabbing rubber keys in the 1980s I had no idea I was also shaping my future.
Y is for Your Spectrum
The cool answer to “Tim, what was the first computer games mag you ever bought/read?” would be “Crash issue #1”. The honest one would be “The first issue of Your Spectrum”. Looking back, I can only think of two possible reasons why I spent my formative years reading the staid Speccy periodical not the sparky one. Either the village shop where I also bought 2000 ADs, Starblazers, and Modern Railway Pictorials didn’t stock it, or I was too dumb/incurious to realise what Crash actually was. Naming your games mag after a J.G. Ballard novel is a bit like naming your wargame and sim site after a North London locale. Potential readers may walk on by, oblivious.
X is for Xquisite animations
Ignore the slightly slow keyboard responses (which, it could be argued, enhance rather than damage the play experience), and Maziacs (1983) is that rare thing, a Perfect Computer Game. Your task is, on the face of it, simple – move a plucky stickman to the heart of a randomly generated maze, collect a treasure chest, and return whence you came. The struggling prisoners encountered en route provide directions, the food caches replenish stamina. With a sword equipped, you can clash with Maziacs (the restless crustaceans that inhabit labyrinths) confident you’ll emerge victorious. Much of the game’s excitement stems from the fact that swords are single use and must be dropped in order to carry the chest. Return trips always involve a few burden swaps, some map contemplation, and, more often than not, at least one nailbiting unarmed scrap (your chance of victory in these is linked to your stamina level). Lose a melee and it’s Game Over. The sight of a stickman corpse limp in the mandibles of a bobbing Maziac is, to me, a bite of Proustian madeleine. It takes me straight back to the early Eighties… straight back to the mind-expanding Wonderland that was ZX Spectrum gaming.
W is for Wonderful Wheelie
Never played a ZX Spectrum game? I can’t think of many better places to start than Wheelie. Grab a free emulator like Fuse, and the title’s TZX file, spend a minute or two reading the admirably concise instruction screens, and you’ll be ready to try a side-scrolling machine-code motorcycle game that blends the real and surreal brilliantly. The bike physics that mesmerised me back in the day, still hit the spot. To reach the Ghostrider at the far end of a level (touching him starts a race back through the maze of passageways), you must jump obstructions, negotiate ice patches, descend steep slopes, and dodge bouncing hedgehogs and kangaroos. Careful MPH management is crucial. Take a jump too fast and your ‘Zedexaki 500’ flips over. Take one too slow and you won’t clear the hazard. Lifting your front wheel with a burst of throttle in order to hop over a low obstacle or collect a points-boosting ‘flying wheel’ remains ridiculously satisfying.
V is for Vertical view
It looks like Second Front’s guiltiest pleasure might involve dive bombers. Amongst recent Facebook posts indicating AI coding is in full swing (“Tightening infantry tactics… Lost two games against AI”) I found this intriguing picture implying Jo Bader’s eagerly anticipated WW2 TBT will feature a pilot cam.
U is for U ‘orrible lot!
The THC Bofors gun gave CarloC’s last effort a pretty good working over. Will his next game, Full Metal Sergeant, fare better? The concept is brilliant, but choices will need to be thought-provoking and recruits characterful, if gaming’s first drill instructor sim is to pass muster.
T is for Trilogy completer
Joe Richardson’s last two point-and-click comedies were works of art in more ways than one. Plundering (mostly) Renaissance masterpieces for their visuals, and filled with high-quality quintessentially British silliness, Four Last Things (£3.50 until Sept 27) and Procession to Calvary (£4 until Sept 27) are no longer installed on my PC, but screenshot folders filled with reminders of their brilliance remain…
Obviously, I’m looking forward to playing Death of the Reprobate, the trilogy completer announced on Tuesday.
S is for Silver epistles
My earliest computer gaming memory involves the Spectrum’s predecessor and what passed for Doom in the year Britain and Argentina came to blows in the South Atlantic. The ZX81 belonged to my best pal, Lee, someone as keen on programming games as playing them. I’m still good friends with him, and looking back through the letters he sent me during the Eighties (house moves took us to different parts of the country) there are numerous reminders of our shared passion for Clive’s paperback-sized, rainbow-emblazoned PC. For example, many of his missives were printed using the Speccy’s strange-to-modern-eyes spark printer. This peripheral rendered text and images by burning aluminium from special coated paper.
R is for Remarkable rail sim
While I can’t claim to have witnessed the dawn of digital wargaming or flight simulation, I was around when the very first train sim chuffed from its roundhouse. Not that I realised it at the time (1985), but Mike Male and Bob Hillyer’s Southern Belle was a breathtaking example of the coder’s art. A London-Brighton train driving game featuring a deeply modelled King Arthur class steam loco, gradients, signals, and multiple scenarios including one in which your stops were randomly generated, its challenges were many and fiendishly interleaved. Maintaining a healthy firebox (a knack that involved studying your chimney emissions) and ample (but not too ample) boiler pressure… keeping to speed limits and obeying semaphores… avoiding wheelslip on slopes and blowback in tunnels… amazingly, it was all there.
Q is for Quick tea break
“On the roof deck of the ‘Heather Bell’, Miss March pours water from a brightly coloured can into the kettle to make a cup of tea.” (© IWM D 7634)
P is for Playground pirates
I’m ashamed to admit that many of the Spectrum games I enjoyed as a nipper were acquired in the playground not purchased in reputable game emporiums. One of the few titles I did buy was workmanlike Asteroids clone Planetoids and I suspect I bought it purely because it had cracking cassette cover art and I’d yet to discover the thriving barter economy at my secondary school. Obtaining new diversions via swapped C-60 and C-90 compilations did have its disadvantages of course. The bootlegged delights often came without instructions. The hours I spent trying to figure out what the heck was going on in Ah Diddums!
O is Omitted in the interests of punctuality
N is for Napoleonics next
Valentin Lievre, the talented Frenchman behind Hex of Steel, has disclosed details of his next project. Once his popular Panzer General-like has been enhanced with finishing touches like Zones of Control, path indications, and randomly generated rivers, he plans to tackle a subject close to his cœur – Napoleonic warfare.
M is for Market Garden marvel
Arnhem, the ZX Spectrum title that showed me that it was possible to wargame without cardboard counters or toy soldiers, deserves to sit alongside pop classics such as Panzer General, Close Combat, and Sid Meier’s Gettysburg in the genre’s Hall of Fame. With just 48K of RAM at his disposal, Robert T. Smith somehow managed to produce a battle sim that was welcoming, challenging, and credible. For an Operation Market Garden obsessed schoolkid living a short cycle ride from one of the airfields used by the Son-bound Screaming Eagles in September, 1944, it was manna from heaven. Bob Smith went on to create two fine North African sequels – Desert Rats and Vulcan – and much later – play an important part in the Total War story.
L is for Looking for a way into game development?
K is for Konquer K2, Everest, and Broad Peak
The Tally-Ho Corner review of Climber: Sky is the Limit, an imminent (Q4 2021) mountaineering sim, probably won’t teem with insightful realism observations. Not only have I not scaled my country’s highest peak, a quick Wikipedia check reveals that I haven’t even climbed my county’s highest peak. The latter failing I vow to address, with the aid of confectionery, bananas, and regular rest stops, before tackling Climber: Sky is the Limit.
J is for Jagged Alliance 3
Haemimont Games, Bulgaria’s biggest game developer, is hoping to do for Jagged Alliance what Mimimi did for Desperados – deliver an official trequel that impresses both series aficionados and curious newcomers. It’s a tall order. The last two titles to bear the JA name, also besmirched it.
I is for Investigation required
a) An improbably efficient relaxation/meditation aid?
b) A peerless evocation of long-distance rail travel in Russia?
c) Ruined by its lack of vestibule samovars?
d) £15 down the WC?
Find out in next week’s 3×3.
H is for Hidden firearms
I’m eager to try the CIA operatives added to Door Kickers 2 by this morning’s update. Toting concealed weapons, spooks are able to infiltrate certain map areas without slinking in shadows or leaving trails of cadavers in their wake. Their chance of detection appears to be linked to the length of time they spend on view and the amount of equipment they have concealed under their clothing. Too many suspicious bulges and too much loitering, and foes may smell a rat.
G is for Guinness
As my friends and family will wearily testify, I’m convinced stout can cure almost all ailments. Anaemia, stomach ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, dandruff, kennel cough… supp the black stuff regularly and you’ll be as right as rain in no time! It doesn’t surprise me at all to learn, via this meaty GrogHeads interview, that Guinness played a part in the genesis of the gem that is Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord.
Steve Grammont: “Back in 1995 Charles Moylan (the programming brilliance behind Combat Mission) and I were having some Guinness at a local bar while talking about game ideas. He started pitching an idea to me about making a 3D tactical wargame. I wasn’t convinced why it was better than isometric, so he drew some things on a beer stained napkin and waived his hands around to demonstrate some principles. Well, that did it and I was hooked!”
F is for First flight sim
Fighter Pilot, the game that gave me my very taste of flight simulation, could easily have put me off armchair aviation for life. It takes fewer prisoners than the Waffen-SS. Your F-15 Eagle isn’t equipped with Sidewinders, your avatar can’t see bandits until they are within 500 metres, and terra firma looks exactly the same at 10,000 feet AGL as it does at 10. Did I ever manage a blind crosswind landing (one of a handful of scenario options)? I doubt it. David Marshall and Digital Integration went on to create sims that have aged far better than FP. He was Project Manager on Tornado (1993) and one of the people responsible for the adorable Hind (1996).
E is for Early Accessible no longer
Armoured Commander 2 and Grand Tactician show no signs of vegetating post Early Access. Rev. Sudasana’s plans include free Spanish Civil War, Second Sino-Japanese War, and Korean War units and campaigns, and Oliver Keppelmüller’s roadmap mentions personalised commanders, new battle maps, constructable building, and exotic weapons.
D is for Dangling daredevils
C is for Chronodungeon
Today’s co-op foxer is a communal quiz masquerading as a dungeon crawl. Even if you’ve never defoxed before, you may be able to assist in the treasure hunt by identifying pics within the 25-image collage. Think you recognise that statue, skyline, snake, screenshot or submachine gun? Sing out!
B is for Battlezone clone
My fond memories of 3D Tank Duel (1984), the Spectrum’s version of Battlezone, were, I now realise, not wholly accurate. I remembered the menacing wireframe enemies that glided about, occasionally spitting slow but lethal 3D munitions. I recalled manoeuvring to avoid incoming fire, and the ugly spreading screen crack that appeared if these evasive efforts failed. I remembered the thrill of ramming vulnerable foes, then dispatching them with point blank shots. What I’d forgotten was that my introduction to tank simulation was seriously unforgiving (surviving for five minutes is a tall order), and like its inspiration, featured dual drive steering. There are two keys for each caterpillar and by braking one track while accelerating the other, sprightly turns are possible.
A is for Airlift recruitment drive
The THC income-meter has been stuck at nine o’clock (approximately £160 a week) for many months now. While this means I’m getting the cakes and ale I need to function, if things stay as they are I’ll never be able to do things like replace my 10-year-old PC, play FS2020, join the VR revolution, buy the tablet I need to start covering mobile games*, or hire other writers. If you’re a regular THC visitor and are in a position to join the airlift, please consider it. Subscriptions come in various forms and, if you use this page rather than this one, can now be purchased using a PayPal account.
* Sorry Wirraway, my old peepers aren’t up to playing Blitzkrieg Fire on a phone screen.