Acorn Electron and ZX Spectrum games that consumed my childhood

We all have our favourite games. Owning an Acorn Electron and then ZX Spectrum (+2) between the ages of 10-18 I must have played 100s of titles. These are a few that stayed with me and that I devoted most of my time to.

Acorn Electron Years

Elite (Acornsoft)

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I’m not sure that any more can be written about Elite? For me it is Britain’s Mona Lisa of videogames, our first true masterpiece of code (just 22K!!!) and open-world design. Most people recall where they were when JFK was killed, Man landed on the Moon or when Take That announced they were to split, but for me I remember where I was when I first saw the rotating Cobra MKV of Elite: Schoolfriend Simon Brock’s 10th birthday, 1984. It changed my life completely. Simon’s Dad, to address a lull in the proceedings excitedly disappeared and then reappeared, plugging in a little shoebox sized beige box into the TV. A few minutes later, the above screen burst forth from its cathode-ray-tube and that was it, I had to have it. Unfortunately, without knowing any better, I also yearned for the very machine I witnessed, leading me to be given an Acorn Electron and Elite for Christmas. Still …

Football Manager (Addictive Games)

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Kevin Keegan, Skill 5. Who didn’t sink a million hours into Football Manager by Kevin Toms on whichever computer that you owned? Kevin’s masterpiece was available on just about every conceivable piece of kit – even the Dragon 32. Unfortunately, us poor Electron owners were denied the nail-biting treat of match highlights, instead having to take solace in a vidi-printer style text results service. Still it didn’t deter me and I finally got to meet the great man in 2012 and ask him why he was unable to create the graphics on the Electron. All down to “memory” he told me. I understood.

Citadel (Superior Software)

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Though the Electron did have a port of Matthew Smith’s classic Jet Set Willy, Superior Software’s Citadel remains the best puzzle platformers to grace the system. It’s huge (over 100 screen) flick-screen design featured some beautifully drawn enemies, devious puzzles and also had an ingenious Exile-esque multicoloured pixelated border that housed additional game machine code.  I was fascinated by the  bold visuals, option to choose character gender, storyline, puzzles and spent many hours creating artwork inspired by the inlay and mapping out the game as far as I could progress.

Twin Kingdom Valley (Bug Byte)

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GIVE DAGGER TO WITCH. Trevor Hall’s Twin Kingdom Valley was probably the first “graphic” adventure on the Electron, and stood out for that reason over the text-only (but otherwise excellent) offerings from Peter Kilworth. The Valley, home to two feuding Kings (thus giving the game its name) housed all manner of fairytale creatures including Dragons, Dwarves and Giants. There was a lot of wandering around, filling of lamps and opening bronze doors with bronze keys, but it was hugely compelling and atmospheric.

Hopper (Acornsoft)

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Another saving grace for Electron owners was the utterly glorious range of arcade clones that appeared on its own Acornsoft label. Acardians, Meteors, Planetoid and Snapper are worthy of a mention, but its Hopper, the Frogger clone that appealed the most to me. Rebbit.

Daredevil Dennis (Visions)

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16 year-old Simon Pick created a Daredevil, named Dennis who had to demonstrate his stunt abilities to Hollywood by driving an assortment of vehicles dodging a variety of static and moving hazards. DDD’s genius was in its simplicity; just three keys – accelerate, jump  and stop (which you could only use once) made it super-accessible and fun to play. As you progressed the treacherous nature of the on-screen objects increased presenting a tense challenge of working out exactly when that stop button needed to be triggered. A lot of fun and due a mobile remake – just don’t mention the Commodore 64 version …

Games I should have owned on the Electron, but didn’t ….

Exile, Codename Droid/Stryker’s Run, Dunjunz, Thrust, Frak! and Ransack.

ZX Spectrum Years

Football Manager (Addictive Games)

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The version I’d always wanted. Graphics and everything.

The Double (Johnson Scanatron)

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I played football games a lot (you may have noticed) and could have included Football Director, The Boss or any other of the pocket money titles from D&H Games budget label Cult – but The Double was was different. It was the first game not to use visible skill levels for players. You had to use the ingenuous scouting system to obtain opinions on potential targets, and you were limited to how many reports you could receive thus running the risk of a top class player slipping through the net. By some form of wizardry it also was the first game (I think) to include a roster of real players with real abilities – albeit limited to the top three tiers of English football and not the full four. The Commodore 64 version retained three divisions using its additional memory to include a horrific match highlights feature. The C64 version was also just as excruciatingly slow as its Z80 sibling. God, EXCRUCIATINGLY SLOW … how did I ever have the patience to play it? But, I forgave its foibles in exchange for its innovative ideas. I could have sworn Tracksuit Manager was by the same developer too.

Turbo Esprit (Durell)

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Turbo Esprit was ground breaking in some many ways. The story revolved around a drugs baron driving a “supply car” loaded full of narcotics into a city, where it would wait for a rendezvous with four smugglers cars. After the “exchange” each of the cars would make a run for the city limits where they would escape and the game would be over. Your role as a James Bond / Miami Vice / Magnum narcotics cop was to hang around until the exchange of drugs and then chase down each of the criminals before they escaped. Where Esprit excelled was in its open world design. It delivered a living, breathing city – working traffic lights that other cars obeyed, petrol stations (you had to refuel), road-works and pedestrians seemingly going about their business.  I spent most of my hours role playing my own stories, using the game’s practise mode to map and drive around Minster, responding to fictitious crimes and cruising the streets. A great game with a fantastic loading screen and superbly detailed graphics. Again, let’s not mention the C64 or Amstrad version.

Grand Prix Simulator 2 (Codemasters)

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I owned several of the “simulator” titles from the Codies (powered by the Oliver Twins) but Grand Prix 2 was the most polished of the bunch. What really stood out was the multi-player experience it offered: An opportunity for up to three friends to sweat it out over our rubber keyboarded chum, battling for position, getting to the finish line in the allotted time, and bagging bragging rights over the fastest lap around a line of fabulous tracks. Crucially for the multi-player experience it didn’t suffer from keyboard clash.

Footballer of the Year (Gremlin Graphics)

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I owned the text-only travesty (press L to shoot Left, R to shoot Right – You Missed!) Acorn Electron version of Gremlin’s board game conversion, and bought it again for the Spectrum – which had graphics! It was ahead of its time, placing you directly in the boots of a player having to convert the chances you had on goal. It probably wasn’t the best version on the Speccy, with its workman-like graphics, and it was exceptionally difficult to win the FOTY trophy due to some very poor game logic: For example, even if you scored 50+ goals a season you wouldn’t win, or you would never be transferred to top teams, or your manager would accept any old offer to offload you. Cult’s Striker, and later titles such as Dino Dini’s Player Manager and New Star Soccer (FOTY’s 21st century pretender to the title) bettered the original but Gremlin’s classic retains a first team place in my squad.

Sherlock (Melbourne House)

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Like Twin Kingdom Valley and its graphics, Sherlock offered something completely different to all other text adventures that went before it (I never owned The Hobbit): The parser seemed so sophisticated. The implementation of “INGLISH”, though still limited was a world away from the frustration of constantly searching for the right verb/noun to use in other games – OUT BOAT, LEAVE, GET OUT OF BOAT, LEAVE BOAT, UP, CLIMB OUT OF BOAT, OUT, JUMP FROM BOAT. Vocabulary was never a strong point of mine. It came packaged in one of those oversized trademark Melbourne House boxes, with a couple of feelies – an excellent manual setting the scene, a tips sheet and a fragment of paper that hinted at trains and timetables from various London stations to destinations across the capital. Add intelligent (ish) autonomous characters (with Animtalk), the transit of night and day (key to progressing in some parts of the game) and a story of murder and mystery that would unravel from the moment you asked Watson to read the early morning newspaper, Sherlock is probably one of the best, albeit it buggy, adventures on the Speccy.

The Big Sleaze

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Fergus McNeil is a genius. If playing Sherlock Holmes was cool, then playing Sam Spillade, a Private Investigator (or Private Dick for short ….. *snigger*) in the highly romanticised 1930s was only measurable in Kelvin. Spillade has his world turned upside down by the entry into his life of the “obligatory female” who had come to New York to meet her father, who never showed up. Spillade takes the case and goes in search of Dad. The Big Sleaze looked like many other Quill/Illustrator adventures, but its attraction was down to McNeil’s storytelling, his refreshing writing style and the smorgasbord of comic wittery above and beyond what you’d expect – usually received from EXAMINEing everything, or typing in random rudeness (“Is that your idea of a good time? Typing in naughty bits?”).  I think Sleaze may have been Fergus’ first collaboration with his future wife Anna, with whom he went onto co-found Abstract Concepts and penned the label’s only game – Mindfighter. Well worth checking out, along with other gems such as The Boggit, Bored of the Rings and The Colour of Magic.

Formula One (CRL)

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Not to be mistaken for every other game called Formula One, this was of the management variety, written by the formal-sounding GB Munday and BP Wheelhouse, released by CRL.You took control of a fledging Formula One team, with a fixed budget from which to pay driver’s salaries, buy and maintain engines, chassis and recruit and train pitstop teams. The “management” beyond this was quite limited; for race day you picked the tyre to match the weather and then watched from a position across from the start/finish line the various cars fly past competing for the lead. It actually was quite involved, as you had a pause between laps that had you on edge waiting to see if you’d overtaken, been overtaken or crashed out with some other issue. Cars would come into the pits for new tyres and you had to take control of the pit crew (one man) and change each wheel. Sounds crap, but it was a little more exciting than that and the best F1 management game on the Speccy (I can only recall a couple of others by Silicon Joy and D&H Games). The same duo also released a Motorcycle variant called Enduro.

Run For Gold (Hill MacGibbon)

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I loved Track and Field in the arcades, along with Hyper Sports, but I was never dexterous enough to progress far enough through the game. The same applied when the action moved to home computers as I experienced more failures thanks to Daley Thompson. It’s probably why I enjoyed Run for Gold so much. It was more strategy then strenuous finger action as you balanced the pace and direction of a middle distance runner whilst keeping your eye on their energy levels. The graphics were wonderfully lifelike and fluid on the Speccy, with lovely big animated sprites filling most of the screen. If you fancy re-enacting those famous Coe vs Ovett races, as I did, then hunt this out.

Games I should have owned on the Spectrum, but didn’t …

Rex, Ranarama, Where Time Stood Still and Myth.

 

 

 

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