The Secret History of Horace
  • Graeme Mason

The Secret History of Horace

Updated: Mar 27



He’s the well-known loveable blobby something from three games right at the early days of the ZX Spectrum, and Horace is already taking to the piste online with Antstream in Horace Goes Skiing. With both Hungry Horace and Horace And The Spiders joining this snow-laden adventure soon, we take a look back at this most peculiar of videogame mascots.


By Christmas 1982 the ZX Spectrum had been on the market for eight months and was fast becoming popular due to its low price and accessibility. The speed at which the computing market was advancing took most people by surprise, and a shortage of software (at least the sort that many owners wanted - games!) was the result. Fortunately, we at least had Horace, the first successful attempt to introduce some sort of recurring games franchise to the Sinclair home computer.


Hungry Horace was Beam Software’s first game, and its founder, Alfred Milgrom, like many, looked to the arcades when it came to devising ideas. The result was inspired by Pac-Man, but with a twist: the main character travels between diverse levels, exploring alternate locations within his local park. One element that remains the same is the eating, only instead of dots, its flowers for which this strange beast has a yearning. Naturally, the park wardens are not exactly thrilled by Horace’s voracious appetite and are out to stop him; fortunately, our hero can ring the alarm bell which confuses the parkies long enough so that he can bounce them from the maze and wander around unmolested for a short time, chomping on petals to his heart’s content – if he has a heart. What Horace definitely does have are two stumpy legs, and a pair of huge, vacant eyes, topped off with a narrow rodent tail mullet hairdo. Weird? Oh yes, but it didn’t stop Hungry Horace becoming a best-seller after it was picked up by publisher Psion, in partnership with Sinclair itself. Coded by William Tang, it was also often bundled with ZX Spectrum computers, thus endearing it to a whole legion of fans, right out of the box.


Thus enthused, Beam began developing a follow up to Hungry Horace, and once more turned to the arcades – at least for half of its next game. Having presumably sated himself on vegetation, Horace has taken up the high speed sport of skiing, armed with a mighty 40 dollars to hire the necessary equipment. There’s just one snag: the ski shop sits on the other side of a busy dual carriageway that makes the M25 look like a deserted country road. Developed within a paltry 16k once more, Horace Goes Skiing introduces two types of gameplay, a Frogger clone where Horace must avoid speeding bikes, lorries and ambulances (!) and, once the skis have been acquired. an impressive simulation of the eponymous winter sport.


Horace’s lives are measured in money, with each ambulance visit following a road accident costing him ten dollars. When the money runs out, the game is over, as it succinctly informs the player: ‘no money, no ski!’ Released just a few months after Hungry Horace, Horace Goes Skiing was another hit, and again became a regular inclusion inside Spectrum bundles.


The following year saw the last commercial release for Horace, and another hazardous adventure for the little fellow. Now boasting three stages, Horace must first climb the foothills that lead to a arachnid-infested mountain. Next comes a deep ravine which can only be spanned by leaping across the stringy webs dangling from the spiders above before, finally, Horace enters a dank cave where even more spiders lurk. This section resembles arcade platform games such as Space Panic and BurgerTime, and in order to eliminate the eight-legged fiends, Horace must create holes in the floor for them to become ensnared in. A few swift jumps on the trapped spiders kills them, then it’s back to the start and another set of levels to clear. Considerably more challenging than the previous two games, Horace And The Spiders is a true test for any gamer, once more coded by William Tang and published by Psion. A fourth game was briefly considered – entitled Horace To The Rescue – that would have no doubt employed some sort of rescue-the-maiden dynamic, until interest in Horace began to wane, combined with the unfortunate collapsed lung suffered by coder William Tang.


However, the story does not end there. In 1995, Horace And The Mystic Woods appeared, somewhat bizarrely, on the Psion-3 palmtop personal digital assistant. Spectrum owners would have to wait another 15 years before they got a chance to play this game, courtesy of programmer Bob Smith, which blends one Spectrum hero with another as Horace attempts to negotiate his way out of a Manic Miner-ish set of platform screens.


As time passed, the Spectrum didn’t lack for mascots and many, such as Dizzy, Wally Week and Monty Mole are all starring on Antstream right now. But for many Speccy enthusiasts, there will only ever be one true hero on the Sinclair computer, the stout doe-eyed and pony-tailed thing called Horace.


Horace Goes Skiing, along with hundreds of other classic ZX Spectrum titles, is playable on Antstream now - head here to sign up and jump straight into the action!