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  • Planet of Death (Artic Computing, 1981)

    Posted on April 8th, 2010 keving 1 comment

    The Sinclair ZX81 (a.k.a. Timex Sinclair 1000) could be the most underpowered personal computer in history that boasted a very active commercial games scene. It produced a strictly black-and-white display and had no sound hardware. It shipped with a whopping 1K of memory, about 672 bytes of which was usable as program space. You could expand this with a 16K RAM upgrade that didn’t attach firmly to the ZX81 and therefore crashed the computer frequently. Since there was no dedicated video chip, the CPU had to spend nearly three-quarters of its time drawing the TV image on the fly, in an arrangement sort of like what Atari 2600 programmers had to deal with. The BASIC language included was pretty powerful, but had assorted bugs — the first version of it thought the square root of 0.25 was 1.3591409. Graphics were limited to the system’s built-in character set, which included letters, numbers, a handful of symbols, but no apostrophe (though people found workarounds for this later on).

    But that didn’t deter British coders. One of them produced a full chess game in 1K — a very bad chess game, but one that’s astonishing simply because it works at all. 16K quickly became a base requirement for ZX81 gaming, though, and developers across England released action games, sports management sims, really rudimentary 3D titles, and so on. The aptly-named zx81stuff.co.uk has archived a fair bit of these releases, but many are still missing in action, advertised in magazines but not known to exist anywhere at this point. Shame.

    I waned to show off Planet of Death because it so egregiously shows another challenge ZX81 coders faced. Since the computer’s video signal was generated by the Z80 processor, whenever you overtaxed the system with too resource-intensive a program, you ran the risk of having the screen go all wonky and flickery. Programmers had the option of turning off video output entirely to let the CPU devote all its time to running code instead, which is what Artic Computing seems to have done for this adventure game. A lot. After every single keypress, in fact. The resulting mess is somewhat mitigated by the fact that there’s no way you could touch-type on the ZX81’s membrane keyboard, so you couldn’t type faster than what’s shown in the video anyway.

    The game, the first of eight adventures Artic produced for the ZX machines, reminds me a lot of Mystery House and the other super-simple games Ken and Roberta Williams got their start with. Like those adventures, Planet of Death has no real plot development and is basically a series of item-ferrying puzzles with an arbitrary maze stuck in the middle. Enjoy the flicker, nonetheless.

  • Vasectomy (Automata, 1982)

    Posted on March 24th, 2010 keving 1 comment

    “A useful operation. Unfortunately you, the surgeon, have got myopic vision, and are blind drunk anyway. You are finding great difficulty in getting the target of your operation into focus. After ‘RUN’ and ‘NEWLINE’ it shifts around the operating table alarmingly. You might be able to control your palsied fingers with their snipping scissors, by using your ‘5’, ‘6’, ‘7’ & ‘8’ cursor controls, and you must snip at exactly the right moment, when your scissors are closed, and also at exactly the right place, which is from behind between the organ & the lower appendages. The result of your efforts will be printed out. Inkey ‘NEWLINE’ to commence operating on another victim.”

    Vasectomy is just one of the amazing experiences to be found on Can of Worms, a cassette tape of BASIC games “for the over 18’s” meant for the unexpanded Sinclair ZX81 computer. It holds the honor of being the first commercial software ever released by Automata UK, a developer that achieved some success releasing ZX Spectrum games like the weirdly pioneering Deus Ex Machina, which I’m sure I’ll cover sooner or later.

    If you’re feeling adventurous, you can play the other games on this pioneering (?) tape online to your heart’s content. Check out some of the other 1K winners here — Acne, where you must squeeze at the poor sod’s exploding forehead with all your might, and the ripped-from-today’s-headlines Reagan, where you must prevent our dear leader’s hair from turning gray and robbing him of his youthful appearance.

    Sadly, fellow early Automata releases The Bible and Love and Death appear to be lost to time, even though all three were advertised together in the first issue of Sinclair User (right).

  • 3D Deathchase

    Posted on May 11th, 2009 keving 1 comment

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    This is page 8 of issue one (February ’84) of Crash, the first really “modern” video game magazine, and it happens to be the very first review they ever printed. Naturally, it’s for 3D Deathchase, a late-’83 game that ZX Spectrum fans hold in such high regard that Your Sinclair called it the “best Speccy game ever” in a 1992 feature. I can sorta dig it. Certainly it’s the best game reviewed in this issue, and it’s a classic example of the pre-Atari-shock “play forever” action genre — gradually increasing challenge, simple rules, just enough visual splendor to keep your attention, a just-one-more-game addiction level (98%, if this review’s to be believed) that’s out of sight. Yes, even today. It’s particularly amazing because it’s only 16K long; if you were too cheap for a 48K Speccy model in ’83, no worries.

    Apparently 3D Deathchase is set in the year 2501. North America is lookin’ pretty good, huh?

    This review pretty well exemplifies how Crash handled reviews for the first few years — description of the game, then two or three paragraphs with criticism from different reviewers. At this point, Roger Kean, Oliver Frey, and Matthew Uffindell were the entire editorial team. I don’t know how they did it.

    You can also see how the review gives you a very quick outline of how to control the game. They never said this outright (and I think denied it when called out on it in a letter several months after), but I’m sure this was meant to be a service for readers who got their Speccy games exclusively from copied C-60 tapes passed around during lunch break.