Category Archives: Old Computers

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

One of the less lauded games from Ultimate, PSSST! was one of my first experiences of a really slick and addictive Spectrum game. It was launched 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
PSSST! Loading Screen 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. 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, and 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.

For some reason, in the Program 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… at the time it was streets ahead of the competition in terms of its ability to replicate arcade games, and 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.

JetPac for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum by Ultimate Play the Game

A new kind of game for the Spectrum

JetPac was one of the first of the games released for the early 16k Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer, and developer Ultimate managed to fit a lot into the tiny memory. This game didn’t fit into any easily definable retro gaming genre, as it had a number of elements, being part shooter, part action-platformer.  

Jetpac forZX Spectrum Cassette Inlay
Jetpac forZX Spectrum Cassette Inlay
What it did do was deliver to early adopter Spectrum owners the arcade experience they had been looking for in their humble home computer.

Due to the memory constraints of the basic Spectrum model, JetPac did away with mutiple screens and stuck to a very simple formula. Use your JetPac to collect space ship parts that fall from the sky, kill the aliens that try to attack you, build a rocket from the parts and take off in it when its complete. Then do it all over again, repeatedly, until you die. And that’s it.

JetPac for the ZX Spectrum
JetPac loading screen for the ZX Spectrum

Despite the simple premise, one which would not hold the attention of many 10 year old game veterans today, Ultimate managed to build a sense of achievement into JetPac, as well as a desire to progress further through the game. You were pushed to tackle just one more screen, in order to see a new alien type with a different attack pattern. Every few screens you would get a new rocket, starting with an Apollo 13 style vehicle, and ending with a space shuttle (Tetris on the Gameboy also did this as a reward for completion).

There was also a great sense of colour in the game, from the garish alien designs to the multi coloured laser blast, but again due to memory limitations the only sound was the squeak of your laser and the plop when the aliens were destroyed.

JetPac for the ZX Spectrum
JetPac screenshot on the ZX Spectrum

JetPac was a masterstroke of packaging in a time when memory was incredibly expensive. Developers Ultimate had to think about not only the gameplay but how they could most effectively fit it into the space available, and maximise the number of Spectrum owners that could play the game.

JetPac Sequels

A sequel to JetPac was later released entitled Lunar Jetman, this time for the 48k Spectrum, with better graphics, a lunar buggy to ride around in, and more varied gameplay.  It was also incredibly hard, and as such not as fondly remembered as the original.

JetPac was also released on the Commodore 64 and the BBC Micro, but was most popular on the ZX Spectrum, and with this game Ultimate set a new standard for gaming on the home computer platform for other developers to follow.