This is the fourth of an ongoing series of posts in which I list, in ascending order, the games that have most influenced me. If you want to know how and why this project started, read this introduction.
I feel should let you know that this post will upset you a great deal if you find the word "bastard" offensive, as will this sentence. Sorry.
Now, let’s jump right in shall we?
ZX Spectrum, 1984
Isometric puzzle adventure platformers are a dying art. The catalogue of Spectrum games includes a glut of excellent and influential titles released over many years. More than a few of them are due to appear in this interminable list of my own influences. Of recent years though, you’re mostly limited to Lumo, which not only wears its retro inspiration on its sleeve but has boundless fun with it. Lumo’s history, and the history of the genre, winds back via various triumphs and missteps until it finds itself at the feet of Sabreman in Knight Lore.
Isometric puzzle adventure platformers are also a dying art in the sense that I would die a lot in pathetic ways. They were often really hard. At least, I was never very good at them, and I’m an athlete gamer as you well know.
In Knight Lore you play as Sabreman, the star of a series of games by Ultimate Play The Game released in rapid succession in the mid 1980s. The events of the two earlier games led to you contracting lycanthropy, the cure to which could only be created by the wizard living in Knight Lore Castle. To do so, the wizard requires Sabreman to explore the castle, avoiding traps and enemies, and completing puzzles. Some of these can only be solved at night when he takes on werewolf form and can jump higher, but at such times he attracts the increased animosity of the castle’s other inhabitants.
The earlier games, Sabre Wulf and Underwurlde, were arcade adventure games too. Knight Lore was the first to use an isometric projection though, despite actually being developed first - Ultimate sat on it until they felt time was right. It was a pioneering example of isometric puzzle design, with tropes such as block pushing that would later become commonplace. But it was also a technological accomplishment, its primary contribution being sprite masking - a way of blotting out the background behind an item before drawing them, allowing for the depth sorting that was required to make readable the isometric 3D effect.
These technical and design milestones appeal to me now as a game developer, being significant contributions in the history of my field. But at the time, to my young and unsophisticated tastes, Knight Lore was just a complicated and difficult game that I rarely played and never came close to appreciating. Hence its lowly entry on this list.
ZX Spectrum, 1988
Like Army Moves from the second entry in this list, The Vindicator! (to give it it’s full title, exclamation mark included) is a sort of package game. It’s three games in one, and while none of them are spectacular in themselves they form an interesting trio. It was supposedly the sequel to Green Beret, though I hadn’t realised this at the time and I’m not even sure now how the two are really linked.
The first stage of the game is the most complex and interesting. You play as a burly chap, walking around a maze of tight twisting corridors armed with an inappropriately large gun. The maze is an alien base, and it’s your job to destroy it. As luck would have it, the aliens (who look suspiciously like the aliens from Aliens) have left components of a bomb, the instrument of their own destruction, lying around in a bunch of store rooms. Unfortunately all those store rooms are miles apart, guarded by monsters, and locked behind security systems in the form of anagrams you must solve. Brains and brawn. Find all the bomb components and you blow up the base. Or, well, a text message tells you you do.
Presumably you manage to get out alive before the explosion because this leads to the second sub-game of the three: a vertically scrolling shoot-em-up. You first fly a jet and then drive a jeep (note, S.W.I.V. was still years away at this point) across a landscape covered with defensive installations and enemy vehicles. This wasn’t terribly well implemented, and many things you’d expect to have to avoid actually don’t collide with you. But it was a pretty serviceable shmup, if a little long and repetitive.
Survive that section and it’s back on foot for a little run-n-gun action. This sequence was the least exciting of the three stages. You walk along a bit, you press a button, and a blobby alien explodes. You do this until you wonder why you aren’t just playing Green Beret instead. The graphics here are bold and colourful, unlike the monochrome presentation of the earlier sections, but suffer from busy backgrounds making it hard to see what's happening. Alas, even the funky floating bright pink urinal/vaginas can’t make up for the ponderous and uninspired gameplay.
The complexity of map in the first section made it a decent challenge, even though fighting the aliens wasn’t particularly engaging. Dropping the final level in favour of fleshing out that maze section into a more substantial game would have been a significant improvement, but all in all, The Vindicator was a decent game that I remember fondly.
How To Be A Complete Bastard
ZX Spectrum, 1987
Tee hee! This video game has a naughty word in it.
At ten years old, that was the extent of my logic. I needed this forbidden game so badly. I couldn’t ask my parents. Not only would they not buy it for me, I thought they might even start to question the educational value of my computer, which was assured as long as I only played Paperboy, I guess.
Eventually it came to light that someone at school had it. Where they got it from nobody would ever know. I taped it off them. I wrote something like “Maths Learning Educational Game 2” on the label and snuck it into the house. I waited until my dad was busy in the garage oiling his lawnmower (I probably only had to wait an hour, this being a favourite pastime of his). Laughing nervously, I put in the tape and pressed play. It loaded first time. It was awful.
You are an idiot at a party. (I know, and in the game as well.) You have to be as awful as possible to score Bastard Points. It’s not clear why, but that’s the whole thing. So how do you score Bastard Points? You open the bleach in the bathroom and throw it everywhere. BONKERS! You steal a pen from someone’s jacket and you stab someone with it. GENIUS! You take a yoghurt from the fridge, fill a condom, stick it out of your trousers, and wave it at the female guests. HILARIOUS!
You solve these “puzzles” while carefully managing various -ometers: your fartometer, drunkometer and so on. Substitute milk for bleach, a nappy-rash gauge for a smellometer, and How To Be A Complete Bastard is basically Jack The Nipper for those with a less sophisticated sense of humour than a toddler.
An interesting technical note. The screenshot above seems to show two rooms with people milling around in them (one of which is your character - which one is anyone’s guess). However, it’s really two orthographic projections through the same room. You can move left and right in the top view as normal, but moving up and down (or, into and out of that view) results in you moving left and right in the bottom view. The rooms at this party are 3D spaces, and all the interactable objects line the walls on all four sides. I have no idea why it was done this way. It adds nothing to the game and is straight-up confusing compared to other graphical adventures like Dizzy, Spellbound, or even Jack The Nipper itself.
I later found out that How To Be A Complete Bastard is a licensed tie-in of a book of the same name, by comedian Adrian Edmondson, who played the character Vyvyan Bastard in The Young Ones. I suppose the same anarchic alternative comedy is present in the game, and maybe it’d have appealed to me more had I been a few years older and understood more of the jokes. I only played this game a couple of times before I taped over it with “Maths Education Learning Game 3: Quadratic Capers.”
ZX Spectrum, 1986
Mark Cerny would later go on to work on huge titles for Naughty Dog and Insomniac across multiple console generations, and become lead architect for the PS4 and PS Vita, but in 1984, at just 18 years old, he created one of the most technologically savvy and innovative arcade games of its day: Marble Madness.
Here he is at GDC in 2011 talking about it in a Classic Post Mortem. There’s some really interesting stuff in that video about the economics of coin-op development in the early eighties, and the unique arcade hardware of the time. Of particular interest to me is the prototype motorized trackball that never worked because nobody sat on a stool while they were designing it.
Marble Madness is a kid’s improvised plaything in digital form. Roll a ball down an obstacle course, over little bridges, through tubes and around holes and barriers, hoping to get to the end as quickly as possible without falling, always hoping the sellotape won't come off the kitchen-roll tubes. The difference is that Marble Madness lets you take control of your balls.
Hot take time guys. You ready? Marble Madness is a bit boring. Sure, it was popular at the time, but so were A-ha. People were idiots, I guess.
Marble Madness just didn’t really do much. Furthermore, the Spectrum version, the version I had, released in 1986, is probably the worst port of it. At least the arcade version ran pretty smoothly, which is essential for a game where precise movement is the key to success. And it had great audio, to its credit, much better than it needed. The speccy port on the other hand was a charmless, drab, ugly, sluggish mess.
Maybe the machine just didn’t have the grunt to run a game like this. Maybe all the fancy physics and collision handling and isometric maps were just too much for the poor little Spectrum to cope with. All I can say in the Speccy’s defence is that Spindizzy was released in the same year, with a vast map, smooth controls, and great puzzle design.
Spindizzy had a much greater influence on me, so much so that I recently remade it. (A decent chunk of it, anyway.) But let’s wait for its proper place in this series. In the meantime, I’m off to glue a load of corrugated cardboard to the bannisters and have some real marble-run fun.
That's your lot. I assure you there are plenty of good games coming to this series, just... well, not for another couple of years.
Prev: Ping Pong to Beach Head
Thanks for reading. Did you love or hate these games? Hit the comments below.