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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:

Goal

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.

Exploration

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.

Power-ups

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 https://www.crashonline.org.uk/06/sabre.htm

Zzap!64 Review http://www.zzap64.co.uk/cgi-bin/displaypage.pl?issue=007&page=054&thumbstart=0&magazine=zzap&check=1

Did The Stampers Really Think Miyamoto Copied Sabre Wulf With Zelda? https://www.timeextension.com/news/2024/05/did-the-stampers-really-think-miyamoto-copied-sabre-wulf-with-zelda

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.

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.

 

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.