ZX Spectrum: 8 Hidden Gems
Even to someone who didn’t own a ZX Spectrum back in the Eighties, many of its games will be familiar. Jet Set Willy, Knight Lore, Ant Attack, Jet Pac, The Lords Of Midnight, the list goes on. Yet every system has its underappreciated classics, those games that sometimes slip between the pages of the magazines, and fail to register much interest despite actually being rather good. Often technically impressive, always fun to play, here are Antstream Arcades’s eight hidden classics of the ZX Spectrum.
Incentive Software, 1983
It’s hard to think of a similar example of Splat!’s frenetic gameplay either in the Eighties or beyond. The player controls Ziggy, a zippy cross-shaped creature that has one task: traverse the walled maze it finds itself in. The problem is, the maze shifts randomly in every direction, forcing Ziggy to think and move quickly if it’s to avoid being squished. Fast, fun and unpredictable, Splat! was Incentive Software’s first game, written by its founder, Ian Andrew, and featured a futuristic metallic cover. It was also one of the first video games to offer a high-score competition, with a hefty £500 the reward for the best splatter.
London-based CRL (it stood for Computer Rentals Limited – the original purpose of the company) released a number of average games in the early Eighties, often written in BASIC.
Then came Glug Glug, the game dubbed ‘Jet Pac underwater’ by many pundits, and just as playable as that Ultimate classic. Playing a deep sea diver attempting to recover numerous treasures from the seabed, Glug Glug involves little more than plunging the depths, dodging the underwater wildlife (or shooting them) and grabbing the golden booty. But the game has a level of smoothness rarely seen in 1984, because, unlike some of its CRL peers at the time, it was created entirely in machine code and had a simple, uncluttered theme at heart.
Visions Software Factory, 1984
Originally released by the little-known Visions, Nifty Lifty became marginally better known when it was packaged up by Currys in a plain white cover and included with a set of other random games in its latest Spectrum bundle. The game was converted by Kevin Bezant (who would go on to help create many classic simulations for Digital Integration) from the BBC Micro original and features such a remarkably uncomplicated hook that it’s incredible anyone took any notice of it at all. Possibly taking a cue from the arcade game Elevator Action, the mission is to guide the protagonist up each level, dodging the chaotic lifts in the centre of the screen. Unbelievably using only two keys – left and right – Nifty Lifty is a joy to play, but don’t let the ease of its early levels fool you; some of its later screens are deviously tricky.
On The Run
Design Design, 1985
It’s perhaps strange to nominate a game from Design Design as a hidden gem given their status as a premier developer of Spectrum games, yet On The Run somehow managed to slip below most people’s radar, despite scoring a Crash Smash. At heart a maze game in the spirit of Sabre Wulf and Starquake, the player takes control of Rick Swift, a do-gooder employed to clean up an area contaminated by chemical warfare. Mutated animal and plant life threaten the hero at every junction, but fortunately he’s armed with a gun and can zoom around sharply with the aid of a jet pack. Yes, there’s a dash of Jetman here too, but that’s not to take anything away from On The Run, a colourful, instantly playable and entertaining game.
Creative Sparks, 1984
Maze games were ten-a-penny on the ZX Spectrum, but not many were as diverting as Quackshot from Creative Sparks. Taking on the mantle of a clockwork toy factory night-watchman, it’s not ghosts or re-animated dinosaur skeletons you need to watch out for but rampaging clockwork ducks. Armed with a stun gun and ‘duckbuster’ smart bombs, each maze must be negotiated, collecting keys and bonuses before proceeding to the next. There’s nothing inherently special about Quackshot, yet its amiable pace and enjoyable use of sound make it one of those games that inexplicably tempts you in with ‘just one more go’. It’s no easy task, however; as the cassette inlay painfully points out, to survive this night you’ll need to be a…QUACKSHOT!
By 1989, the bouncing ball sub-puzzle genre had become very popular on the Spectrum thanks to the success of titles such as Action Reflex, Trailblazer, Bounder and Plexar. Released by French publisher, Loriciels, Bumpy bounced by virtually unnoticed until Your Sinclair included it on a cover tape two years after its initial release. Each screen presents a bouncing ball (controlled by the player) and a series of traps and puzzles which need to be solved in the correct order so that the next level can be reached. Easy to get into, yet utterly conniving on its later levels, Bumpy is a unique and nicely-presented idea that exudes enjoyment from its well-designed screens.
As the videogame market descended into arcade conversions and film licenses in the mid-Eighties, it became harder for major publishers to take a risk on original properties such as Deactivators. Derived from an unusual development background – Tigress Marketing came up with and designed it before another team was brought in to actualise its vision – Deactivators concerns a team of robotic bomb disposal experts who must assemble inside various threatened buildings, acquire the errant explosives and chuck them out of the nearest window. So not much actual deactivation then! Viewed in beautiful, clean semi-3D screens, Deactivators quickly ramps up the difficulty with reverse gravity and enemy robots, making it a fiddly but rewarding experience for those who were prepared to put aside the latest arcade conversion.
This well-, yet nefariously plotted mixture of Boulderdash and puzzle games is one of the very best logic and exploration games on the ZX Spectrum – yet so few played it, despite glowing reviews. The player controls two shields (Magus and Questor) that must travel through each of the tight mazes, collecting masks and accessing new areas by destroying certain sections with the correct item. Careful co-operation between the two shields is required to solve each maze with at least one of them intact, and some of the latter levels require much thought to progress, making their completion even more satisfying. With no time limit, but a maximum of 2000 moves available, XOR is most definitely one that will reward the thinking gamers out there.