Oh Opinions, they can be dangerous things, it’s an impossible task to go through the many hundreds of innovative Spectrum titles to attempt a top five. In time I may do a top ten or even twenty. These are titles which I have recently played and found to be not only entertaining or wonderful technical achievements but also addictive. There’s probably not any surprising titles in this list but I hope that you all enjoy my perspective on them.
1. Elite – The Ultimate Spaceship Simulator
Elite has achieved legendary status in the gaming community since its launch. It’s an incredibly immersive spaceship simulation experience. Allowing the player the absolute freedom to explore, trade, negotiate or blast rivals into bits.
You start the game with not much in the way of anything. You have a ship, its armed with a weak laser, three missiles, a tank full of fuel and 100 credits. The first skill that you must master is the art of docking to various space stations across the galaxy. If you get this basic procedure wrong, your beloved ship will explode and your travels will come to an abrupt end.
I mentioned the freedom of player choice earlier, I think this is one of the key defining elements of the game. You can choose to play as a trader, watching the stock markets on various planets, collecting goods which are scarce and making a profit. Perhaps you want to do some bounty hunting and rid the galaxy of villainous scum? Maybe you even want to become a Space Pirate, a dread figure that looms from the vacuum of space to destroy cargo ships and raid their supplies? Whatever way you wanted to play this game, the aim was to climb through the ranks until you are known as ‘elite’. The highest accolade I achieved in this regard was to be considered ‘deadly’. From this, I am sure that you can infer in which manner I played this title!
This was an outstanding technical achievement, featuring hundreds of planets spanning galaxies which were procedurally generated. There was a never ending challenge, the simple wireframe graphics conjured a mood similar to Atari’s Star Raiders but jacked the space combat up by 100. This is why even today this title should be played among ZX Spectrum enthusiasts regularly.
If you want to know more about the development of this title, check out Kim Justice’s excellent documentary below for more details.
2. Horace Goes Skiing
I’ve always wondered what exactly Horace was. An icon of the 8-bit microcomputing era Horace became utterly iconic but his torso was baffling, were those holes supposed to be eyes? Whatever he was meant to be he was the Spectrum’s hero. Throughout his adventures he battled spiders and ate a lot and then he went on a skiing holiday.
Of course as this is a Horace adventure its not all fun on the piste. In order to glide gracefully down the slopes, the player must guide our hapless hero across a busy road to get to the Ski Hut. This is done in a manner similar to Frogger. This is a game of two parts and the element of trying to get our almost featureless blob across the road to his goal can be incredibly frustrating.
Cars, Ambulances and motorcycles fly across the screen in a manner which made it almost impossible to discern a pattern to guide Horace safely across. Once you do, Horace is charged the princely sum of USD 10 for the privilege of two skis. You must then guide Horace all the way across the road to the piste and begin your snowy descent.
The skiing part is a lot more fun, still challenging mind but controlling Horace down the track, avoiding trees and aiming to slide between the coloured flags. Each successful run gains you more money and score and at the end of the course… you go back and do it all again.
Despite its difficulties and limited gameplay, Horace goes Skiing has acquired classic status due to its addictive qualities. It also features the most elusive element of gaming and perhaps the most important – fun. This game is a lot of fun and will keep you playing and coming back to its slopes time and time again.
3. Jet Set Willy
Willy is a staple of any Spectrum fans game collection, whether it’s Manic Miner or it’s sequel Jet Set Willy these titles are quintessential platformers on the system. In Jet Set Willy we see our hapless hero attempt to tidy his mansion after a crazy party. Similarly with the original game, the objective is to move from room to room, picking up objects and attempt to reach the end screen.
One of the key improvements with this sequel is the ability to move freely. Exploring previously visited rooms which brings a whole new dynamic to game play. I have even found myself focusing more on exploring the rooms over focussing on collecting each object. It’s always a fascinating process to examine game environments especially those crafted by wundkind Matthew Smith.
There are 60 locations to explore and some of these are hellishly difficult. There’s also a notorious bug (or is it feature?) which sees Willy respawning in a room to be placed over the same trap which caused him to die in the first place. This then results in repeated death until it’s game over. The most well known of these bugs occurs in ‘The Attic’, once players had entered this room, a bug then makes certain that other room which you return to corrupt in a way that automatically kills Willy. In order to resolve this issue, the game needed to be reloaded to clear the issues from memory. One of the earliest ‘game patches’ was released via a POKE in order to resolve this problem.
This early platforming title is full of charm and crazy characters. Brutally frustrating at times but all the more loved for that reason. Jet Set Willy ages like a fine wine, its a fun trip into the mind of a creative genius.
4. Rainbow Islands
Rainbow Islands proved that the Spectrum could handle fun, colourful arcade ports. Rainbow Islands was a sequel to Taito’s popular Bubble Bobble game and was known for it’s bold graphics, addictive gameplay and family-friendly appeal.
Using the power of rainbows, you must climb the level before the water level drowns you. All the while tackling various enemies and collecting power-ups. Each level is divided into a number of differently themed stages. Rainbow Islands presents the player with levels that scroll vertically, a marked difference to Bubble Bobble which utilised a single static screen.
Instead of magical bubbles, the player now has the ability to create special rainbows which not only eliminate enemies but can be walked over, forming ad hoc platforms. The objective is to try and collect a full set of rainbow gems before coming face-to-face with the islands particularly nasty boss.
The Spectrum version is a masterful creation, all seven of the arcade islands make it into the game. The mechanics which proved so popular in arcades are untouched and the vertical scrolling is smooth and responsive. At times I did experience some slowdown but that was when the screen was busy with multiple enemies and rainbows. Most of the different power-ups from the arcade also make it into the game. These include the usual red and yellow pots for upgrading the length and speed of your rainbows, star-bursts and even the screen clearing thunder-chalice.
This is a highly playable and faithful rendition of the arcade original. A stunning technical achievement and has the ability to keep sucking you back for ‘one more go’.
5. Chase HQ
Chase HQ was one of my earliest gaming memories, it was originally an arcade machine which burst onto the scene in 1988 from Taito. It eventually emerged onto the ZX Spectrum a year later. It focuses on the crime fighting skills of Tony Gibson as he attempts to find various villains on the highways and then smash them off the road. Under the ever watchful gaze of Nacy back at HQ you are guided to your next target – but be careful watch out for civilians!
The graphics are beautifully clear and the speed which the game hurtles along at is something to behold. The gameplay is fairly simple, head along a stretch of road avoiding civilian cars and find the bad guy before the timer runs out. To assist in this you have three turbos which push your cars engine to the limit, however with this speed its sometimes difficult to avoid smashing an innocent car off the road so use them wisely!
Addictive gameplay and a fair escalating challenge make this one of my more fondly remembered home console conversions.