Category Archives: ZX Spectrum

Atic Atac Game Review for the ZX Spectrum

Or is it Attic Attack?

The Early 1980s UK Gaming Scene

The early 1980s were a transformative period for the video game industry, marked by rapid technological advancements and a burgeoning market for home computers. The ZX Spectrum, with its affordable price and cheap cassette-based games, became a popular platform for development. Whilst our American cousins were focused almost entirely on video game consoles such as the Atari VCS, UK gamers were playing games on their ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro or Commodore 64 home computers.

Overrun by Monsters in Atic Atac

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 Sinclair 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.

Ultimate Play the Game

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 16k games such at Jetpac, Pssst! and Tranz Am 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 utilising 48k memory 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 being overcome by the many monsters therein.

Initial Reception

Upon its release in 1983, Atic Atac was met with widespread acclaim. Gamers and critics praised its engaging gameplay, intricate design, and replayability. It quickly became a staple in many ZX Spectrum collections.

“Atic Atac is an amazing blend of action and exploration, setting a new benchmark for ZX Spectrum games.” – Crash Magazine

Gameplay and Mechanics

Core Gameplay

Atic Atac’s primary objective is for players to escape a labyrinthine castle by collecting pieces of the ACG (Ashby Computers & Graphics) key. The game is played from a top-down perspective, with players navigating through rooms filled with enemies and traps.

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.

Moving between Atic Atac Levels

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

Player Classes

Players can choose from three characters: the Knight, the Wizard, and the Serf. Each character has unique weapons and access to different routes through the castle, adding variety and strategic depth to the gameplay.

Inventory System

Atic Atac features an inventory system where players collect and use up to 3 items at a time to progress. These items can unlock new areas, defeat specific enemies, or provide crucial information, making inventory management a key aspect of the game.

Graphics and Sound


For its time, Atic Atac’s graphics were impressive, leveraging the ZX Spectrum’s limited capabilities effectively. The colorful sprite design and detailed rooms created an immersive atmosphere that drew players into the game world, making the most of the extra memory afforded by the 48k Spectrum.

“The graphics are outstanding, especially considering the hardware limitations of the ZX Spectrum. Each room is vividly detailed, making the game a visual treat.” – Your Sinclair

Atic Atac Spooky Theme

The visual design of Atic Atac maintained a consistent medieval theme, enhancing the game’s narrative and adding to its charm. The distinctive look of each character and enemy contributed to the game’s overall appeal.

Atic Atac Loading Screen
Spectrum Loading Screen

Horrific Sound Design?

While the ZX Spectrum was not known for its advanced sound capabilities, Atic Atac made good use of available resources. The sound effects, though simple, were effective in enhancing the gameplay experience and providing audio cues for player actions.

Atic Atac Challenge and Replayability

Difficulty Level

Atic Atac is known for its initially challenging gameplay. Players must navigate a complex maze, manage limited resources, and contend with numerous enemies. The difficulty curve is steep, but it rewards persistence and strategic thinking.

“Atic Atac’s difficulty is perfectly balanced. It’s challenging enough to keep you on your toes, but not so hard that it becomes frustrating.” – Computer and Video Games Magazine

Replay Value

Several factors contribute to Atic Atac’s high replayability. The randomized elements, such as item placement and enemy behavior, ensure that each playthrough is unique. Additionally, the different experiences offered by the three character classes encourage multiple playthroughs. Ultimately, with practise, the game could be completed in around 3 minutes.

Legacy and Influence

Lasting Impact

Atic Atac has left a lasting legacy in the gaming world. It influenced subsequent game design, particularly in the action-adventure and exploration genres. The game’s innovative mechanics and engaging gameplay set a precedent for future titles.

“Atic Atac is a pioneering game that has inspired countless developers and remains a benchmark for adventure games.” – Retro Gamer Magazine

Atic Atac on Other Platforms

Amstrad CPC Version

The Amstrad CPC version of Atic Atac retained the core gameplay and mechanics of the ZX Spectrum original but featured enhanced graphics and sound. The color palette was more vibrant, and the sound effects were slightly improved due to the CPC’s superior audio capabilities. However, the gameplay experience remained largely the same, preserving the challenging and engaging nature of the original.

“While the Amstrad CPC version offers better visuals and sound, it stays true to the spirit of the ZX Spectrum classic, making it a must-play for fans of the original.” – Amstrad Action

BBC Micro Version

The BBC Micro version of Atic Atac also aimed to replicate the success of the ZX Spectrum release. This version featured smoother (although chunkier) graphics and slightly faster gameplay, benefiting from the BBC Micro’s hardware. The game’s controls were responsive, and the overall experience was faithful to the original, although the color scheme was more muted compared to the Amstrad CPC version.

BBC Micro – Chunky but Good

“The BBC Micro adaptation of Atic Atac retains the original’s charm and complexity, with minor graphical improvements that enhance the gameplay experience.” – Micro User

Final Verdict

Was Atic Atac really that good?

It’s difficult to get across how excited we were to get our hands on Atic Atac, after reading reviews in Crash magazine and seeing the posters up in WH Smith and John Menzies. The size and scale of the game, combined with the smooth graphics and the spooky theme, it just felt like nothing that had come before on a home computer. It may seem quaint now, but at the time it was groundbreaking, and a sign of greater things to come for UK gamers.

References and Further Reading

For those interested in learning more about Atic Atac and the history of the ZX Spectrum, here are some useful sites:

Tranz Am Review for the ZX Spectrum

Ultimate’s 16k Driving Marvel

For many, the ZX Spectrum was a gift from parents that believed it would be an educational tool, like the Sinclair ZX81 before it, but in reality it was used by everyone for gaming. One game that stands out is Tranz Am, a top-down game set in a post-apocalyptic USA. Developed by Ultimate Play the Game (the developers who later became Rare), Tranz Am wasn’t just another game; it was a test of reflexes, strategy, and sheer willpower.

Tranz AM Gameplay GIF

Background of Tranz Am

Tranz Am was released in 1983, a time when the ZX Spectrum was still relatively new but already a household name among gamers. Ultimate Play the Game had already established itself with titles like JetPac, but Tranz Am was different. It combined the thrill of racing with an open-world map, something quite ambitious for its time, particularly as it was written to squeeze into only 16k of memory.

I remember first loading up Tranz Am on my trusty WH Smith data cassette player, grateful that I didn’t have to adjust the tone to improve the quality of the signal. I’d actually bought this game, rather than using a “backup copy” acquired from a friend, so it worked first time….

Gameplay Mechanics

Objective and Controls

In Tranz Am, your mission is simple: survive a Mad-Max style apocalyptic world in your dune-buggy car. You start with a limited amount of fuel and must traverse a vast map to collect the “8 Great Cups of Ultimate” while avoiding obstacles and enemy cars. The controls are straightforward: left and right to steer, forward to accelerate, and backward to decelerate. For those who preferred joysticks, the game supported that too, though many stuck to the trusty keyboard. I was always a keyboard fan, even though I had a Kempston joystick and interface.

Tranz Am gameplay screen
Tranz Am Gameplay

The Game Environment

The game’s map is a sprawling depiction of the United States, albeit a very pixelated one. Major cities are represented by clusters of buildings, where the name of the city would appear at the bottom of the screen, giving you another navigation reference. You’ll often find fuel pumps scattered around which you need to run over to refuel your car. Enemy cars, represented by different colored sprites, roam the map, ready to crash into you and end one of your 3 lives. There were also trees and boulders to avoid, as well as the occasional tombstone and oil derrick.

Fortunately for you, your radar shows the position of the approaching cars allowing you to avoid them or plot your escape. The radar also shows the cups, although they look the same as an enemy car. As an added twist you couldn’t just smash the accelerator to outrun your enemies, as this would cause the engine to overheat and the car to slow down.

This created a certain tension as you constantly monitored your fuel gauge while trying to outmanoeuvre rivals, and not overheat the engine.

Tranz Am Graphics and Sound

Visual Style

Considering the hardware limitations of the ZX Spectrum, Tranz Am’s graphics were impressive. The car sprites were detailed enough to be recognizable, and the map, though simplistic, conveyed the vastness of the environment effectively. Compared to other games on the Spectrum, Tranz Am’s visuals were quite advanced, with a good use of the limited color palette.

To provide a bit of variety, there was a “Night Driver” mode which would randomly occur at the end of a life, inverting the screen colours to provide a black background. This would have required a very low programming and memory overhead but was a great effect.

Sound Effects

The sound effects, while basic, added to the immersion. The rising hum of the engine as you accelerated, and the crash sounds when you hit a car or boulder were all part of the experience. Unlike modern games, there wasn’t much in the way of background music, but the minimalist sound design worked well, keeping you focused on the gameplay.

Cassette art for Tranz Am on the ZX Spectrum

Tranz Am Difficulty and Replayability

Level of Challenge

Tranz Am was no walk in the park. The difficulty curve was steep, especially for beginners. The controls were responsive but unforgiving, and it took a few crashes before you got the hang of maneuvering your car. However, this difficulty was part of the game’s charm. It felt rewarding when you finally managed to outlast your rivals and gather enough fuel to keep going and start collecting cups.

Strategies for beating Tranz Am

One tip is to always keep an eye on your fuel gauge. It’s tempting to speed ahead, but managing your resources is crucial. Another strategy is to learn the map layout. Certain routes are safer and have more fuel canisters, so memorizing these paths can give you an edge.

My personal strategy involved a lot of trial and error. I found that sticking to the edges of the map often yielded more fuel and fewer enemy encounters. It wasn’t foolproof, but it worked more often than not.

Complete the game by collecting all 8 cups, and you will be presented with a score and a time, with a game being completed in around 10 minutes.

Replay Value

Trans Am on the Spectrum garnered praise for its substantial replay value, a sentiment echoed by gaming magazines of its era. Reviews highlighted the game’s dynamic gameplay mechanics and the unpredictability introduced by its open-world format.

Magazines often emphasized how each session felt fresh due to the random placement of fuel canisters and enemy cars, keeping players engaged and challenged. This variability not only added to the game’s excitement but also encouraged strategic thinking and replayability, making Trans Am a standout early title in the ZX Spectrum’s library of games.

Tranz Am ROM Cartridge
Rare Tranz Am ROM Cartridge

Comparing Tranz Am with other ZX Spectrum Racing Games

Chequered Flag

Chequered Flag, developed by Psion and released in 1983, is a classic racing simulation game for the ZX Spectrum. It offers a surprisingly deep experience given the hardware limitations of the time. Players can choose from a variety of cars and tracks, each offering unique challenges and requiring different strategies to master.

The graphics, though simplistic by modern standards, are impressive for the ZX Spectrum, with detailed car sprites and well-designed tracks. The game employs a first-person perspective from behind the wheel, which was quite innovative for its era. The controls are responsive, allowing for precise handling, which is crucial in navigating the tight corners and straightaways of the tracks.

Chequered Flag for ZX S-ectrum
Chequered Flag by Psion

One of the standout features of Chequered Flag is its realism. The game simulates different car dynamics, such as acceleration, braking, and skidding, adding a layer of depth that was uncommon in many racing games of the time. The inclusion of a gear shift mechanism further enhances the simulation aspect, making the gameplay both challenging and rewarding.

The sound effects, while basic, complement the action well. The engine noise changes pitch as you accelerate and decelerate, adding to the immersion. However, the absence of music might make the experience feel a bit stark to modern players.

Pole Position

Pole Position, ported to the ZX Spectrum by Atarisoft in 1984, brings the classic arcade racing experience to home computers. As one of the earliest racing games, it set a high standard with its blend of fast-paced action and competitive gameplay.

Pole Position Screenshot Spectrum
Pole Position

Graphically, the ZX Spectrum version of Pole Position is quite basic, but it retains the essence of the arcade original. The car sprites and track elements are simplified, yet they convey a clear sense of speed and motion. The first-person perspective from behind the car adds to the excitement, and the colorful backgrounds, though rudimentary, are effective in creating a dynamic racing environment.

The controls in Pole Position are responsive, which is crucial for navigating the twists and turns of the Fuji Speedway track. Players must qualify in a time trial before competing in the main race, adding a strategic layer to the gameplay. Successfully weaving through traffic and avoiding obstacles while maintaining high speeds is both challenging and exhilarating.

Sound effects in the ZX Spectrum version are minimal, primarily consisting of engine noises and collision sounds. While these are rudimentary, they serve their purpose in enhancing the racing atmosphere.

Overall, Pole Position for the ZX Spectrum captures the spirit of the arcade original despite the hardware constraints.

Enduro Racer

Enduro Racer, ported to the ZX Spectrum by Activision in 1987, brings the off-road motorbike racing excitement of the arcade original to the home computer. While it can’t fully replicate the arcade experience, it offers a fun and challenging ride.

Graphically, Enduro Racer is impressive for the ZX Spectrum, with detailed sprites and varied terrain. The game uses an isometric perspective, providing a clear view of the track and obstacles. The bikes and riders are well-animated, and the sense of speed is effectively conveyed, even with the Spectrum’s limited graphical capabilities.

The gameplay is straightforward but engaging. Players control a motorbike, navigating through a series of tracks filled with jumps, bumps, and other hazards. The controls are responsive, allowing for precise handling, which is essential for avoiding obstacles and maintaining speed. The game requires a mix of speed and strategy, as players must manage their bike’s position and momentum to tackle the various jumps and rough terrain effectively.

Enduro Racer Spectrum

Sound effects are minimal but functional, consisting mainly of engine noises and crash sounds. While not particularly immersive, they do add to the overall experience.

Enduro Racer’s difficulty level is well-balanced, offering a satisfying challenge without being overly frustrating. The game captures the essence of off-road racing and provides a good sense of progression as players advance through the increasingly difficult tracks.

Overall, Enduro Racer for the ZX Spectrum is a solid racing game that effectively translates the excitement of the arcade original to the home computer.

Pros and Cons of Tranz Am Compared to Peers


  • Huge open-world map
  • High replay value due to randomised environment
  • Simple arcade-like controls


  • Steep learning curve
  • Lacks driving realism compared to traditional racers
  • Lack of graphical variety

Tranz Am’s standout feature is its combination of racing and exploration. The post-apocalyptic setting adds a layer of excitement and tension, making it more than just a race against the clock. The game’s ability to mix adventure and survival is what makes it memorable.


While not a household name today, the 1983 ZX Spectrum game Tranz Am left its mark. This overhead racer, with its smooth controls and post-apocalyptic setting, was praised for its originality and accessibility. It helped establish developer Ultimate Play the Game as a force in early gaming and showcased the potential of the ZX Spectrum platform.

Sabre Wulf: ZX Spectrum Classic by Ultimate

In the golden age of 8-bit computers, the Stamper brothers, Tim and Chris, carved their niche with innovative and action-packed titles for the ZX Spectrum. One such game, released in 1984, was Sabre Wulf, a unique adventure game that captured the imagination of gamers with its exploration, combat, and a touch of mystery. This article delves into the world of Sabre Wulf, exploring its origins, variants, critical reception, and the gameplay that made it a classic.

Gameplay gif of Sabre Wulf on the ZX Spectrum
Sabre Wulf Gameplay on the Spectrum IGIF)

Exploring the Jungle: Unveiling the Gameplay

Sabre Wulf placed players in the role of Sabreman, tasked with finding 4 pieces of a mysterious amulet, in order to pass the titular Sabre Wulf and escape the Jungle. The gameplay revolved around:

  • Maze Exploration: Sabreman navigated a vast, 256-screen jungle maze filled with obstacles, enemies, and hidden paths. The game used a “flick screen” mechanic, so effective in earlier game Atic Atac, where the background was static and the screen would “flick” to the next when the player approached the edge.
  • Combat: Using his trusty saber, Sabreman fought off various foes like bats, snakes, and spiders. Strategic use of the saber and careful timing were crucial for success. Some enemies could not be killed so had to be dodged or completely avoided.
  • Power-Ups: Scattered throughout the maze were orchids with random effects, some beneficial and some detrimental, adding an element of surprise and risk-reward.
  • Treasure: Score extra points by finding treasure, as well as gaining extra lives.
  • Amulets: The key to escaping the jungle lay in collecting four hidden amulet pieces scattered across the maze. Oh and finding the exit, a centrally located cave guarded by a mysterious native.

Sabre Wulf presented a unique blend of exploration, combat, and puzzle-solving, offering a satisfyingly, if a little repetitive, open-ended experience.

Sabreman attacks some innocent creatures

Sabre Wulf: Home Computer Variants

The game wasn’t confined to the ZX Spectrum. Here’s a look at its adaptations for other platforms:

  • Acorn BBC Micro (1984): A faithful port retaining the core gameplay but with slight graphical tweaks. The primary benefit over the Spectrum version was the avoidance of the colour clash that plagued the Sinclair machines graphics. This was however at the cost of a lower graphical resolution, and a strange “wide” screen layout.
  • Commodore 64 (1985): Developed by a different team, this version featured somewhat different visuals and sound effects. Zzap!64 magazine slated this version as having disappointing graphics, as well as being poor value for money, having been released 8 months after the original Spectrum version.
  • Amstrad CPC (1985): This port maintained the gameplay but with some limitations in color palette compared to the original Spectrum version.
  • TI99/4A (2014): A belated and unofficial conversion for the popular US home computer.
Sabre Wulf box for Spectrum
“Big Box” Sabre Wulf Packaging

Critical Reception: A Roar of Approval (Mostly)

Sabre Wulf on the ZX Spectrum received generally positive reviews, with some reservations. Crash Magazine (1984) awarded Sabre Wulf a respectable 83% score, praising its addictive gameplay,challenging puzzles, and atmospheric graphics. However, the reviewer noted the repetitive nature of the combat and the lack of a clear story.  Reviews in other publications echoed Crash Magazine’s sentiments, highlighting the game’s strengths and acknowledging its limitations.

Despite some critiques, Sabre Wulf garnered a loyal following, becoming a cornerstone title for the ZX Spectrum and solidifying the Stamper brothers’ reputation for innovative game design.

Pond screenshot of Sabre Wulf
Sabreman avoiding some spiders

Guide to Playing Sabre Wulf

Sabre Wulf on the ZX Spectrum is known for its challenging gameplay and lack of explicit instructions. Here’s a breakdown to help you complete it:


Collect four pieces of an amulet scattered throughout the jungle maze. With the complete amulet, approach the guardian at the cave entrance in the centre of the maze to win.


The maze is large and interconnected. Explore every nook and cranny to find the amulet pieces and other helpful items such as treasure and extra lives. Avoid the Wulf who patrols a lane at the bottom of the maze and can’t be killed, only outflanked. With very little direction you will either need a good memory, or like most gamers of the time, draw a map!

Avoid Danger

The jungle is full of enemies like spiders, scorpions, and the elusive Sabre Wulf himself. Touching them will lose you a life. Using your sabre you can kill most of the baddies, but remember you can only swing your sword to the left or right, so you need to be careful running up or down the screen. Watch out for the sleeping hippos which block the paths, they can be poked awake but will stampede! Avoid loitering in a screen too long, this creates roving forrest fires which kill Sabreman on contact and can’t be destroyed.


Sabre Wulf on the ZX Spectrum doesn’t have traditional power-ups in the sense of permanent upgrades. However, it features Orchid flowers that provide temporary benefits, some of which have nasty side-effects:

Sabreman looking a bit Blue
  • Yellow: Destroys all enemies on screen but leaves Sabreman briefly incapacitated (immune to enemies during this time).
  • Red: Grants temporary invincibility but slows Sabreman down.
  • Purple: Provides invincibility for a short time but inverts controls (left becomes right, up becomes down).
  • Cyan: This is the one to have – offers both invincibility and increased speed (turbo boost).
  • White: Neutralizes the effect of any other active orchid.

Trial and Error

There’s no in-game map or guidance. Learning the maze layout and enemy patterns comes through exploration and repeated attempts. Think of it as an 80s Roguelike but without the pervasive power-ups!

Sabre Wulf sequels from Ultimate

Ultimate (later Rare) released a number of titles in what became the Sabreman series between 1984 and 1986, although they followed very different formats:

  • Underwurlde (1984): Following his escape from the jungle, Sabreman finds himself in a hostile underground world. This side-scrolling platformer tasks him with finding three weapons to defeat three guardians and ultimately escape the Underwurlde.
  • Knight Lore (1984): Sabreman is infected with lycanthropy after escaping the Underwurlde, and must find a cure for his condition. This isometric adventure game puts him in a castle filled with traps and puzzles, and where he turns into a werewolf during full moon.
  • Pentagram (1986): Now a seasoned adventurer and a fledgling wizard, Sabreman embarks on a quest to find the powerful magical artifact known as the Pentagram. This isometric adventure game features magic-based combat and puzzle-solving elements.
Knight Lore for the Spectrum
Knight Lore Isometric Graphics
  • Mire Mare: This planned sequel to Underwurlde or Pentagram never saw the light of day. Little is known about its intended gameplay or story, as it was cancelled around the time of the partial takeover of Ultimate by US Gold. It is however mentioned at the end of the aforementioned games.
  • Gameboy Advance Remake. In the Rare (Ultimate sister company) 2004 remake for the Game Boy Advance, Sabre Wulf takes Sabreman, the explorer, on a treasure hunting adventure once again. This time, a shattered amulet frees the villainous Sabre Wulf, and it’s up to Sabreman to recapture him and reclaim stolen riches.
GBA version of Sabre Wulf
Sabre Wulf remake on Gameboy Advance

Lasting Impact of Sabre Wulf

Sabre Wulf for the ZX Spectrum introduced some interesting concepts for it’s time, while not necessarily packed with groundbreaking technical innovations:

  • Price and Packaging: Ultimate Play the Game priced Sabre Wulf significantly higher than their usual games. This bold move aimed to combat piracy by making owners more protective of the expensive software. It also established their now-iconic unadorned “big box” packaging style.
  • Storytelling: The game didn’t hold your hand. There were no tutorials or explicit instructions. Players had to figure out the goal (collecting amulet pieces) and mechanics through trial and error. This approach to storytelling became more prominent later on, but was less common in 1984.
  • Large, Colorful Game World: The 256-screen maze offered a vast and visually appealing environment for a ZX Spectrum game. This created a sense of exploration and discovery for players.  The Stamper brothers claim that Sabre Wulf’s exploration and item collection mechanics might have influenced The Legend of Zelda (1986), although this is very much up for debate.

While not revolutionary, these elements helped shape Sabre Wulf into a memorable and influential title for the ZX Spectrum.

Sabre Wulf Links

Crash Magazine Review

Zzap!64 Review

Did The Stampers Really Think Miyamoto Copied Sabre Wulf With Zelda?

Stop the Express for the ZX Spectrum

Stop the Express was a game for the 48k ZX Spectrum, created by Hudson Soft, who are best known for their work on the PC-Engine console, and also some great console games such as the Bomberman series. The game was published by Sinclair Research in 1983 as part of a series of games promoted by Sir Clive’s in-house team.

Casting you in the role of an action hero in the style of James Bond or Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible, your objective is to traverse the length of a moving train in order to stop it, and thus prevent some unexplained tragedy from occurring.  Set over 2 main stages, the game saw you start at the rear of moving train, with carriages that take up most of the screen. The movement of the train is indicated by passing telegraph poles in the background and the ground scrolling beneath the train.

Playing Stop the Express

Working from the final carriage on the right, towards the front of the train on the left, the first stage took place entirely on the roof. To progress to the front of the train required you to jump between carriages, whilst avoiding overhead gantries which could know you off. You also had to deal with the intentions of the evil “redmen”, who rather than communist sympathisers were actually red men, armed with throwing knives which had to be avoided with a well-timed duck or jump. The redmen could also be dispatched with a flying kick, knocking them off the roof, or by catching a passing bird, which could be let loose to dispatch the evil henchmen.

Stop The Express Cassette Art
Stop The Express Cassette Art

Any contact with a knife, gantry or the red men would see you thrown from the train, as would mis-timing a jump between the carriages. Make it across the roof of 10 carriages and the first level is complete, and you then move inside the train for the second level.

Once inside, you are now attached from the front by red-men, and have no birds to come to your aid. To avoid the flying daggers you can jump and hang from the straps attached to the ceiling, but don’t linger too long as a ghost (yes it’s also a haunted train) will attack you and knock you down. Your only weapon once inside the carriage is your flying kick, which can be used to see off the red men.

Congraturation! Completing Stop the Express

Once you reach the end of level 2, which comprises of 10 more carriages, you are greeted with the immortal words – Congraturation! You Sucsess! To this day I have no idea how this made it through quality control for UK gamers, or whether it was an intentional piece of “Engrish” intended to spice up the game and give it an exotic flavour.  On completion of the second level, you are back to the start, with increased difficulty in the form of more enemies, which later attack you from both sides.

Difficulty wise, Stop the Express game did suffer from control issues, with 7 separate keys for running, jumping and ducking left and right, as well as button to release the bird. With a compatible joystick however the game became much easier to control.

Stop the Express critical reception

This is a highly original game, and looking back it’s a surprise it did not have more of a following – CRASH magazine gave the title 80%, and Sinclair User described it as an “industry stardard”. Your Sinclair actually had the game as number 4 in it’s list of the top 100 Spectrum games of all time, but the game somehow did not receive the same adulation from Spectrum owners – except maybe me, it was one of my favourites.

Stop the Express was also Commodore for the 64, and due to the Hudsonsoft connection, Japan’s MSX compatible machines.

Jumping Jack for the ZX Spectrum

Jumping Jack was released for the Spectrum early in it’s lifetime in 1983, and was one of my earliest experiences of Sinclair gaming in colour. Looking at it now, it would barely pass muster as a free flash based app, given it’s basic graphics and incredibly simple gameplay. But if you consider that the ZX Spectrum was for many people their first colour computer, and that they had previously had to make do with the blocky black and white graphics of the Sinclair ZX81, Jumping Jack was still a revelation.

Jumping Jack - ZX Spectrum Screenshot
Jumping Jack – ZX Spectrum Screenshot

Playing Jumping Jack on the Spectrum

The premise of Imagine’s game is simple. Jack must reach the top of the screen by jumping through moving holes in the 8 platforms above him. Time the jumps correctly and you pass through the hole onto the next level, time it badly and collide with the platform and you are momentarily stunned. You could also be stunned by falling through one of the holes that move beneath you – fall far enough back to the bottom level and you lose a life.

To complicate the challenge further, every jump would create a new random hole somewhere, increasing the potential risk. The holes themselves would travel in both directions, and rise up the levels as they wrapped around the screen, requiring some quick thinking in order to progress. Fortunately Jack could also wrap around each level, giving you an extra escape route when the holes start to close in.

Once you reach the top the level is complete, and you progress to the next which has more holes, and then monsters that inhabit the platforms and must also be avoided, including planes, buses, snakes and strangely what appear to be angry shotgun wielding farmers.

Basic Graphics of Jumping Jack

The graphics used could hardly be called cutting edge, with Jack being a crudely drawn but well animated stick man, and the monsters simple coloured sprites. The fast pace however made up for any graphical weaknesses, and resulted in a surprisingly addictive game which took time to master.

Jumping Jack Legacy

Magazines at the time lauded the game for it’s playability, despite the basic graphics which hardly compared with other games released in 1983. Remember this was the year that Ultimate released the excellent Jet Pac, and Quickskilva introduced 3D isometric gaming with Ant Attack.  Jumping Jack therefore represents the last of it’s kind, a simple Spectrum game that whilst good, would not cut it amongst the new wave of developers pushing the Sinclair machine to its graphical and gaming limits.

The game was also released on the Atari 800XL and the Dragon 32 as “Leggit”.

Fruit Machine Simulator for the ZX Spectrum

Fruit Machine Simulator
Fruit Machine Simulator by Codemasters

I’ve always been partial to a bit of a flutter, and I was particularly drawn to the fruit machine and casino game simulations on the early home computers.  Due to the relatively simple graphical requirements of these early games, they would often appear as listings in magazines – I can remember spending hours typing in a BASIC listing for a really very mediocre offering.

The Spectrum had its fair share of commercial fruit machine and casino games, which were launched 20 years before the availability of online gaming sites and dedicated apps.  Home computers really were the place to be if you wanted this kind of gaming experience outside an arcade or Bingo Hall.

Back in the early 80’s the arcades were not only full of great games, but also the more traditional slot machines which had to become more exciting in order to retain the attention of their shared audience.   As the fruit machine developed more features and become more game-like, rather than just repeatedly spinning reels waiting for a win, it was only natural that home computers would be the natural target for fruit machine simulators.  The home computers at the time were owned by a much wider demographic than that of the equivalent consoles, which were targeted at the under 18’s, and unlikely to release these kinds of games.

Fruit Machine Simulator
Fruit Machine Simulator

My first experience of these games was Codemasters Fruit Machine Simulator, a popular distributor of budget games, this one being available for £1.99, which was probably about right for a niche game of this kind.  The game attempted to recreate the feeling of a fruit machine of the time, which started to feature special bonus games as well as just matching fruit.  The simulation centred around the usual Fruit Machine formula – match fruits to win, or hold fruits with numbers on to light up the bonus letters until full, unlocking the bonus game.  Once unlocked the bonus game could earn you extra cash through features such as a skill stop, my personal favourite, where you had to time a key press to stop a flashing light at the right time and increase the cash prize.

The game received mixed reviews at the time, ranging from tedious to brilliant depending on your perspective – I loved fruit machines so I loved the game, I am sure there are other who just wouldn’t get it.  Play it in isolation of a real Fruit Machine and it just wouldn’t be the same.

Looking back, the game seems representative of a time when we were still working out what home computers were for, people would experiment with different programs to see what worked and what didn’t, as we didn’t really have a frame of reference, and everything was a first.  I’m sure you would struggle to get interest in this kind of game as a free browser based application today, but in the 80’s it was yet another reason to fire up the Spectrum and try something new.  Plus you didn’t risk losing your pocket money to the one-armed bandits.