Category Archives: Old Computers

Mr Ee! Retro Review for the BBC Micro

Mr Ee! came from a time when copyright law didn’t seem to apply to video games, otherwise this game would never have existed. Imagine taking the latest Super Mario game on the wii, copying it, calling it Super Dave and releasing it on the XBOX. That’s what Micro Power did with Mr Ee on the BBC Micro, a blatant copy of The Mr Do arcade game.

Mr Do original arcade game
Mr Do original arcade game
But there are plenty of blatant rip offs out there in video game history, and this is not the reason why Mr Ee needs to be celebrated. What it did, it did brilliantly, providing an almost arcade perfect copy of the original, recreated on a home computer whose primary purpose was teaching IT in schools.

On seeing Mr Ee playing on my friend’s BBC, a kind of cross between Pac Man and Dig Dug, I knew I had to have one. Everything from the full colour graphics to the manic (if repetitive) music, shouted quality, and to me it looked and played just like the game I had played in the arcades. It was the first time that I realised that commercial quality gaming was possible on a personal machine. It is no suprise to read interviews with Adrian Stephens (the programmer behind the game) had spent hours playing the game in the arcades and had wanted to recreate that feel.

Me Ee! for the BBC
Mr Ee - spot the difference

Mr Ee goes back to a time when one programmer, part game fan / part self taught coder, could produce a commercial quality game at home and it become a huge hit, selling in thousands. Today this is just not possible, not even in the world of teenagers selling games through the app store. In this open market space a popular game will need programmers, artists, musicians, marketing teams and serious money in order to compete with the thousands of quality games available.

So hats off to the BBC and their indirect promotion of blatant plagiarism for the sake of the 80’s gaming public – it will never happen again.

Atic Atac Retro Review for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum

Atic Atac for ZX Spectrum

Well before I discovered Atic Atac, my first experience of Spectrum gaming was from Sinclair’s own game label. It was a fairly lumpy product called Horace Goes Skiing. Whilst a world away from the silent black and white ZX81 which I had just graduated from, I soon got bored of these early Spectrum offerings, which had no depth and very little replay value.

Loading Screen for Atic Atac
Loading Screen for Atic Atac

Atic Atac Game Development

Soon developers began to unlock the full potential of the little rubber buttoned machine, and at the head of this movement were the Stamper Brothers, and their company – Utimate Play the Game. Early games such at Jetpac, Pssst! and TransAm games were massively addictive, with smooth scrolling graphics, large colourful sprites and novel gameplay, with that all important replay value.

After these initial successes, Atic Atac was the first in a series of action adventure games, featuring larger play areas and huge puzzles to solve, providing a much deeper game experience. The game was set in a haunted castle, your mission to find the parts of a key that would allow you to escape, without first eing overcome by the many monsters therein.

The castle setting of Atic Atac was spread over 5 floors, including subterranean dungeons, and the haunted attic of the title, and was riddled with secret passages that had to be learned in order to progress. You could play as a Knight, Wizard or Serf, with each character having their own unique weapons, and the ability to use specific secret passages. Atic Atac was quite punishing, with your character faced with a continuous onslaught from the various monsters, some of which could be destroyed, some just avoided. Life in the representation of a roast chicken could be restored by eating food found lying around the dungeon. Not that food found on the floor should be eaten anyway, but mushrooms were very dangerous and actually drained life.

Picking up coloured keys allowed access to different coloured doors, and you could also climb up and down stairs to access different levels, or use a trap door or other secret passages mentioned earlier. Once you had the levels of Atic Atac mapped, you had the solution and it is possible to complete the game in 3 minutes or less, but the fun was in mapping your route. With the 3 characters having different skills and routes to complete the game, Atic Atac certainly had some replay value after completing the first quest.

Sinclair ZX81 old school computing

It’s 1981, and I’m an 10 year old boy fascinated with the emerging world of personal computers.  My dad would bring home a Commodore Pet machine from work, the same shape and size as a small car, over the Christmas period. I would spend hours playing Snake (yes, years before Nokia got in on the act) and various dungeon based games punctuated by, well punctuation, as the character “sprites” on screen were all “$”s and “&”s.

Sinclair ZX81
Sinclair ZX81
At the weekend I would lurk around the local Tandy store (UK equivalent of Radio Shack, now long gone) and marvel at machines like the TRS-80 and TI994A, looking through the software catalogues and imaging how good the colour screens on these machines would be, and how advanced the graphics looked.

From here I would head off to John Menzies (another long forgotten chain of stores) and see what computer magazines were out.  It was here I found the mythical Sinclair ZX81, on sales amongst the typewriters and led calculators.  This was a chance to own my first proper computer, and for less that £80.  My 11th birthday came, and so did the little black box with my new ZX81 inside.  After unpacking the hefty manual, and plugging in to my black and white TV (tuned to channel 35) I was good to go.  

So what next?  Well, you were presented with a little blinking cursor, and that’s it.  No hard drive, no windows, no mouse, no idea what day it is, who you are, or what it was doing yesterday.  Every day was day 1 for a ZX81, and you had to tell it what to do, from scratch, every time.

So I read the manual. And I started programming, got my name printed on the screen, tried some FOR..NEXT loops, played with input and output, and then when I got to line 15 of my programme – “OUT OF MEMORY”.  Yes I’d reached the 1k RAM threshold of the standard machine.  Yes 1K – that’s 1,000 bytes.  I’ve just saved this document in Word and so far it’s 12K.  My toaster has more memory.  Dad is promptly dispatched to Menzies for a 16K RAM pack and I can complete my program, albeit very gingerly, because whenever you bash the plastic membrane keyboard too hard the RAM pack wobbles and you lose all the code.

Master program completed (a question and answer session that tells a “knock-knock” joke), I want to save my magnum opus.  Enter the cassette recorder, a new C90 tape, press play and record and type “SAVE”.  A wobbly screen and a few seconds of squawking later, and the programme is saved for eternity – or until you tape over it with the Top 40 on Sunday.

Looking for some hardcore gaming action, I would peruse the back pages of the computer magazines, and send off a cheque or a postal order for the latest game – no online reviews, no screen shots, just the programmers often exaggerated description of the gaming delights on offer.  Eventually the tape would arrive and you would spend several hours trying to get the tone of the recorder right in order to load the game correctly.  It was pot luck if the game was any good or not, personal highlights for me were John Ritmans Namtir Raiders, and my all time favourite 3D Monster Maze.  What these guys could do with a black and white low-res screen was amazing.  Much of the rest were variations on letters chasing other letters around the screen in complete silence.  

Time passed by, and I moved on to the Spectrum, what with it’s “real” rubber keyboard and flashy full colour graphics, and the ZX81 became redundant.  I can’t however forget how it introduced me to the world of computing, and that I knew this was the start of something big.