Hello! If you’ve seen my other article you’d know that, in its’ own lunchtime, the Zx Spectrum was a pretty big deal. Things have progressed since its’ 80’s heyday however – so does the humble Speccy still have any games that are worth playing today?
I argue yes. It may not have been gifted the large base of exclusive titles that your Sega and Nintendo consoles had, but there are a few key areas of the Spectrum software library that ensure it should continue to offer valued for years to come:
While most UK software houses focussed on spreading their titles to as many different platforms as possible, there are still a number of notable titles that you’ll only be able to play on a Speccy.
An obvious example is Death Chase 3d. Clearly inspired by the speeder bike chase from Return of The Jedi, Death Chase stands as a fascinating testament as to the kind of game you can fit into the memory footprint of an empty MS docx file. The controls are a bit wonky and the suspicious 3d effect basically means that the trees effectively jump out at you, but its relative rapid pace means that it still delivers a decent hit of arcade action today.
Another good example of a Speccy exclusive is Skool Daze. Based in the rigid confines of a British Secondary school, the player is tasked with maintaining a veneer of conformity while simultaneously hatching a plan to break into the head master’s office so that he can switch his real end of term report with a forgery. Featuring the ability to escape from classes and shoot random teaches (and fellow pupils) with a catapault, Skool Daze’s mechanics have never really been replicated anywhere else – despite the superficial similarity to Rock Star’s Bully.
The Spec had some truly great originals, then. However, not every great game had to be exclusive.
Spec is Best
In the modern era, big budgets and huge teams mean that, generally, games are pretty much identical across different platforms (the odd Arkham Knight excepted.) In the Spectrum’s day, things were different. Though the base hardware governed the raw nature of your average ported game (C64 games were more colourful, Spectrum games were sharper,) the overall quality of a port depended entirely on the programming skills of two or three individuals.
Despite being based on the same game then, the Spectrum and C64 ports could be completely different games, made to completely different priorities. Where the Spectrum port of Outrun was an attempt to recreate all aspects of the original machine, for example, the Commodore version is a much more basic affair which ditched the title’s trademark branching tracks for a fixed route that was easier to load from a linear cassette tape.
A great example of a game that plays best on the Spectrum is Ocean’s version of Chase H.Q. if you can get past the yellow and black game world, you’ll uncover a massively rewarding experience. Not only does the port include features absent from the PC Engine and Master System versions (such as sampled speech and the helpful police helicopter on stage 2) but the overall experience is probably closer to the feel of the arcade than even the 16-bit Atari and Commodore iterations managed.
These aren’t the only examples either. C64 Robocop is a much harsher game than its (reasonably tough) Speecy counterpart, and the Spectrum version of fantastic beat ’em up Target Renegade has a cooperative two player mode that is entirely absent from the Commodore game. Though it would be wrong to say that the Speccy version was always better, there are definitely enough examples to demonstrate that the spectrum version should never be discounted completely.
The consensus today might well be that licensed games tend to be rushed, unimaginative cash ins, but back when the Spectrum was king the picture wasn’t anything near as clear cut. From a pill-popping tie-in based on pop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood to a game based on comedian Adrian Edmonson’s tongue-in-cheek life manual “How To Be a CompleteBastard, ” anything and everything seemed to end up with a tie in Spectrum game. Sure, there was a lot of crud, but a lot of them were rather good too. The Trapdoor, for example, is an extremely unique game based on a popular children’s claymation: Taking the role of the series’ hero, Berk, the player is tasked with working out how to successfully construct a number of weird and wonderful meals for Berk’s master, the Thing Upstairs. There might have been hundreds of games produced for the NES and the Master System, but I guarantee you won’t find anything quite like it in either of those libraries.
Indeed, the same goes for quite a lot of the licensed games in the Zx Spectrum’s arsenal: 8-bit consoles probably won’t have anything quite like the political strategy game based on the TV series “Yes, Prime Minister,” nor like the Proto-GTA adventure based on Miami Vice. That’s not to say there aren’t some terrible cash-ins – most of the games based on James Bond films were terrible – but nonetheless the reign of the Spectrum and C64 represents an unprecedented era of experimental creativity in the field of licensed software.
When people talk about the Spectrum in the UK media, there’s some sort of weird unwritten rule that they have to wittle on about early Spectrum titles like Horace Goes Skiing and Death Chase. Now, as we’ve seen with Death Chase, some of these games are all time classics. Realistically, however, if you were playing on a Spectrum after 1985 you were probably doing so for the arcade ports. Now, I know what you’re thinking, and in some senses there probably isn’t much point in chasing down obscure 8-bit versions of arcade games that can so easily be emulated, but I’d argue that Spectrum arcade ports are still interesting for a few of reasons.
From a technical perspective, many of them are absolute marvels. The Spectrum port of Sega’s Galaxy force might be in monochrome, and might still have some horrendous colour clash despite that fact, but it actually tries to incorporate more of the fine details from the original arcade than either of Sega’s own versions. Though rushed to market, The Spectrum version of Rampage includes impressive AI companions that don’t feature in either the Master System or NES conversions. The glorious Spectrum conversion of Strider includes big, chunky sprites that retain much more detail than other 8-bit versions
On top of this, a number of the Spectrum arcade ports are classic games in their own right. Midnight Resistance, for instance, makes use of a completely different graphical stye from the source material and offers an interesting change of pace and difficulty.
Meanwhile, the creators of the Spectrum ports of of Ghouls’n’Ghosts, NARC and R-TYPE managed to somehow pull off perfect recreations of 16-bit environments in a humble 8-bit box from 1982. Sure, the graphical nuance may have gone, but in terms of pacing they’re absolutely perfect recreations that really need to be seen to be believed.
A final point of interest is the actual size and breadth of the library. At the beginning of its life, the Spectrum library was filled with cheap and nasty knock offs of titles like Space Invaders and Frogger. A decade later, the system’s swan song was an ill-advised port of Street Fighter II. Consequently, the Spectrum was home to almost every game created during the golden age of the 16-bit arcade. From Zaxxon to G-LOC, the Spectrum probably has a more complete library of Sega arcade releases than either the Megadrive of Mastersystem.
I’m sure this wasn’t a category you thought you’d be seeing here, but the Spectrum boasted a pretty complete library of three dimensional games. Though a lot of these used unfilled vector shapes (think the original Star Wars arcade game) there were a number of titles that boasted fully filled 3d shapes, including an impressive (if uncontrollable) port of Atari’s Hard Drivin’.
Most of the games that featured filled polygons tender to be ponderous puzzle-based adventure games whose gameplay was unaffected by slow frame rates. Driller and Castle master are two shining examples of this genre, though if you don’t like these you could always make your own thanks to an impressively functional title called ‘3d construction kit.’
Because it was much less taxing to draw vector lines instead of filled shapes, vector games tended to cross a much wider array of genres. Outside of classic space sim Elite there were a number of more arcadey vector titles (including Battle Zone and Star Wars) and also some ambitious adventure and simulator titles. The flowing organic villains of vector title Star Glider will be of more than passing interest to any fans of Fox McCloud and the Star Fox gang.
For an 80’s Speccy owner, the best thing about the 3d titles was that the more expensive C64 simply couldn’t keep up. Where amphibious action-strategy game Carrier Command was a fully 3D game one the Spectrum, the C64 version was a Disappointingly two dimensional top down affair. Ha.
That’s a quick overview of some of my favourite aspects of the Zx Spectrum library, but there’s tons more. Batman and Head over Heels, for example, are two isometric maze games that will help scratch at the itch of any intrepid dungeon crawler.
If tabletop gaming is more your bag, the likes of Chaos and Laser Squad are inspired attempts at bringing Games Workshop-style action onto the small screen. Both remain fantastic choices for local multiplayer games.
Finally. For those who like their games a bit less usual, Streaker is a fascinating game built around the concept of losing your clothes, while Rockstar Ate my Hamster is an impressive attempt to forge a music industry management sim. Don’t even get me started on the hundreds of text adventures…
There may not be something for everyone, but the Zx Spectrum library contains a breathtakingly wide array of gaming experiences, covering the entire range from forgettable instant action through to impenetrable simulation. Many titles may not have aged well, but there are as many titles that play as well today as they did in the 1980s. If you feel inclined to jump in, you won’t regret giving the little black box a try.