Category Archives: Old Computers

Frak! retro review for the BBC Micro

Back before the word Frak! became a swear word on the most recent incarnation of Battlestar Galactica, or a controversial form of mining, it was a 1986 platform game on the BBC Micro. My friend had a BBC Model B and a Sony colour monitor, and we would play Frak! for hours, as well as the excellent Mr Ee! (a clone of the arcade game Mr Do!).  The game was written by Nick Pelling under the Aardvark Software brand, although he preferred to be known by the name Orlando M. Pilchard.

Frak! on the BBC micro

Frak! game for BBC Micro
Frak! Screenshot for the BBC Micro
You control a caveman called Trogg, who had to traverse various platforms and defeat monsters armed with only a yo-yo. Timing had to be pixel perfect, and Trogg could only fall a short distance without dying – with no floor, falling from the edge of a platform often meant instant death. The game itself was not exactly Chuckie Egg in terms of speed, with progress more of a puzzle than a rush through the levels. Trial and error was often the way to progress, plodding your way through the various obstacles to collect the keys to the exit and complete each of Frak’s 3 basic levels.

Along the way you would meet one of three stationary monsters, whose touch was deadly, so you had to work your way around them or destroy them your yo-yo. In addition to the monsters, balloons would rise from the bottom of the screen, and daggers would fall diagonally down the screen, and colliding with either would also end in death. Fortunately you could also destroy them with a well timed yo-yo strike.

To score extra points you could collect light bulbs and jewels that are dotted around the platforms, often in out of the way places that made your journey longer and more treacherous.

 

After completing 3 levels the game screen turned itself upside down and you would play again, a novel way of extending the life of the game by re-using graphics, important when you only have 32k of memory to play with. Most toasters these days have more than this.

Most memorable for the fact that the caveman would cry “FRAK!” in a speech bubble whenever he died, clearly a way of swearing without swearing, ultimately influencing the writers of Battlestar Galactica (possibly). The back story for the game was never really clear to me though. Why was he a caveman? Why did he have a yo-yo? Why monsters, if he was a caveman why not sabre-toothed tigers or mammoths? Perhaps we will never know.

Frak! was also released on the Electron (I had a copy of this and it was monochrome and very disappointing) as well as the Commodore 64, but the BBC Micro version was the original and best.

For and interview with the developer head on over to the BBC Games Archive.

3D Monster Maze for Sinclair ZX81

3D Monster Maze Cassette
3D Monster Maze Cassette
As an 11 year old with an interest in computers, what better birthday present could I get but the latest in home computing the Sinclair ZX81. During the 1980’s you could buy computers from John Menzies, which for the under 40’s was a store a bit like WH Smith but with more calculators.On unpacking my new best friend I plugged it into the mains and my old black and white TV, tuned to channel 36, and started typing in some BASIC commands on the plasticky membrane keyboard.  After about 10 lines of code I got an out of memory error. Apparently I had filled the 1K of memory. So Dad got me a 16K RAM pack, which was attached to the expansion board at the back and held on with velcro.  As long as you didn’t jog the keyboard too hard and dislodge the unit, this extra memory let you type in (and load) much larger programs.

3D Monster Maze Sinclair ZX81
3D Monster Maze Sinclair ZX81

My favourite of these 16K games was called 3D Monster Maze, from a company called New Generation Software, which saw you running away from a Tyrannosaurus in a randomly generated 3D maze. Given the limitation of the computer’s graphics, which were in-built character blocks in black, white and shades of grey only, the effect was amazing.

The game managed to really ratchet up the tension as you tried to escape from the Tyrannosaurus, with the status line on the screen telling you how close the Tyrannosaurus was. A bit like Doom did over 10 years later, the tension while you waited for the monster to appear made the game.

Remember this was a first person perspective 3D game, back when you had to load the game from tape, and the computer would randomly reset at regular intervals when it got too hot.  To say it was ahead of it’s time was an understatement.

A great classic from a time when lone programmers working in their bedrooms could release a number 1 selling video game, and proof that you don’t need high definition colour graphics and surround sound to create an atmospheric gaming experience.

PSSST! for the ZX Spectrum, an Ultimate review

Pssst! Gameplay on the ZX Spectrum using animated GIF
Pssst! gameplay recording on the ZX Spectrum

PSSST! was one of my first experiences of a really slick and addictive Spectrum game. It was launched by publisher Ultimate! around the time of Jet-Pac, prior to the later and more popular isometric games. I remember cutting out the coupon in Sinclair User to order the game, paid for with a postal order for £5. No downloadable content and PayPal for us back in 1983! Back then you had to rely on a grainy screenshot if you were lucky, and the idea of Youtube to view gameplay was a fantasy.

PSSST! Loading Screen on the ZX Spectrum

The game was released on cassette tape, much like all games for home computers of the early 80’s. The ZX Spectrum loading screen for Pssst! was a sign of the graphical goodness to come, with chunky graphics that somehow managed to avoid the colour clash that plagued the Sinclair machine.

Playing Pssst! on the ZX Spectrum

Playing the role of “Robbie the Robot”, your objective is to patrol your garden and protect your green shoot from invading insects long enough for it to grow and flower. The insects would crawl or fly towards the flower, and could be killed by using the right kind of spray for the insect – either a puff of gas, an electric zap or a water spray.

Screenshot of Pssst! For the ZX Spectrum
Pssst! Game-lay screenshot on the ZX Spectrum

The cans were dotted in alcoves by the side of the screen, and you could only carry one at a time, which forms the main game mechanic.  You will encounter a number of different bugs as you progress through the game, starting with caterpillers and moving through bumble bees and wasps, each with a different attack pattern, and requiring different spray types.

Survival of your flower was a frantic battle to keep swapping sprays and killing insects moving at different speeds towards your flower.

Not the best or deepest game from Ultimate but a taste of things to come, and a world away from the clunky amd jumpy character animation of most early Spectrum games.

Arcadians retro game review for the BBC Micro

In my retro games reviews I’ve covered a few BBC arcade conversions including Killer Gorrilla, so won’t repeat what I’ve aleady said about some of the liberties taken in the early days by developers like Acornsoft.

Arcadians for the BBC Micro
Arcadians for the BBC Micro
But if they hadn’t stretched the boundaries of IP infringement we would not have arcade perfect conversions such as Arcadians (a thinly veiled Galaxians clone). All seems to be in order, from the swooping aliens to the large player ship at the bottom of the screen. In fact the player ship was huge, making bullet dodging quite a challenge.

Arcadians was quite a repetitive game, sitting somewhere in between Space Invaders and Galaga in the arcades, with not much variation in gameplay if any between waves. Galaga took the Arcadians model with swooping aliens and added in bonus screens and dual ships, perfecting for many the formula and providing some much needed variety.

Anyway, back to Arcadians, in addition to the perfectly replicated gameplay, it also featured an arcade-style high score table and a novel “attract” screen with a demo of it being played, just like a real cabinet, making it feel really authentic.

Arcadians was also released later on the Acorn Electron, the BBC Micro’s younger brother, and it was just as good despite it being a less powerful computer. Anyone with a BBC or an Electron back in the 80’s should remember this game, another great example of what the BBC was capable of in the right hands and the closest thing to the arcades for a home gamer.

Killer Gorilla for the BBC Micro

Not a Donkey Kong Clone, Honest

The BBC Micro was touted as an educational tool, if you believe Fred Harris (sorry kids). Most of us growing up in the 80’s will have used one at school, either doing some rudimentary programming, or playing with maths tools such as “Turtle”.

Killer Gorilla BBC Micro
Killer Gorilla Screenshot on the BBC Micro

It also happened to have a great specification for replicating arcade games due to the colourful high resolution screen and multi-channel sound. Various publishers in the early days of the BBC chose to go down this route, with faithful renditions of Mr Do! (Mr Ee), Frogger (Hopper), Space Panic (Space Monsters) and Donkey Kong which, you guessed it, was renamed Killer Gorilla.

Killer Gorilla Game Advertisement

Killer Gorilla Gameplay on the BBC Micro

For some reason, in the Program Power (later Micro Power) version, they felt the need to replace Mario with a stick man. Quite how they felt this would fool Nintendo I don’t know, as in every other way this game was a carbon copy of the arcade game. The levels were recreated perfectly, and even had the “How high can you try?” message between stages.

I won’t dwell too long on the gameplay as we all know Donkey Kong, but this game had it all, as your not-Mario jumped and hammered his way across various levels to rescue his girlfriend. The gameplay was true to the arcade original, including the need to time your jumps to perfection to avoid the many different obstacles put between you and the big monkey. The sound was also pretty spot on, as well as the inter-stage screens showing your progress up the skyscraper.


I spent a lot of time on this as a teenager when I was supposedly “doing homework” on my BBC Micro. It was streets ahead of its contemporaries in replicating arcade games, which wasn’t lost on people not able to afford the pricey BBC Micro. I was very jealous of my friend who had one if these when all I could manage was a Sinclair ZX81.

Daley Thompson’s Decathlon for ZX Spectrum

Like many sports games, definately a game “of it’s era”. Who over the age of 35 could forget Daley Thompson’s cheeky performances in the 1980 and 1984 Olympics? He was a hero to every boy in the UK at the time, me included, and I once got to meet him at my local athletics club, albeit fleetingly…

Daley Thompsons Decathlon
Daley Thompson Hurdles

Anyway, this game was loosely based on Konami’s Track and Field, and was notable for 2 reasons:

1) Daley Thompson was a black athlete, and yet (probably due to the Spectrums dreadful pallette and colour clash) he appeared in the game as a totally white sprite

2) Daley Thompson’s Decathlon broke a LOT of joysticks due to the frantic waggling required to make Daley run – you could use the keyboard but the rubber membrane would also give up the ghost after too much bashing.

Like the regular Olympic event, the game is set over two days in which Daley must compete in the 100 metres, long jump, the shot, high jump and the 400 metres, 110 metres hurdles, pole vault, discus, javelin and finally the 1500 metres.

Using a similar approach to the Track and Field game on which it is based, waggling or button bashing is required to build speed, and buttons pressed at the right time to either jump or throw depending on the event. My personal favourites were the Javelin and the High Jump, which required both speed and perfect timing in order to progress.  Each event required a certain score to qualify and move on to the next stage.

Despite looking a bit pale, Daley himself had some very smooth animation, with reactive controls that enabled some pixel perfect jumps to be executed, important at the later stages of the game which became very tricky.

 

The game was followed by 2 sequels on the Spectrum, Daley Thompson’s Supertest and Daley Thompson’s Olympic Challenge, as well as conversions for the Amstrad CPC and C64, but it was the original Spectrum version that will be best remembered by retro gaming fans.