Valhalla, ZX Spectrum

Valhalla was a game that was heavily marketed as an “epic” adventure with limitless possibilities back in 1983 when it was first released. It was portrayed by its publisher, Legend, as something of a ‘killer app’ on the Spectrum, and they even tagged it with a “MoviSoft” logo to make it seem “cinematic” – MoviSoft was the name of the game’s engine.

In truth, what you got was a laughable (and very expensive, at £14.95) medieval ‘soap opera’ with stick men being mean to each other; mostly in and around castles.

Valhalla is played by typing text commands into the game and getting responses. You can summon things and order characters to do things (they won’t always comply). And you move around (by typing compass directions), take, drop and give things, and even start fights between characters.

Ultimately, though, what you’re trying to do is find and collect six magical objects in order to reach otherwise unreachable areas in the game. The down side is that by just carrying these items they sap your strength, so you have to be careful. Also: you cannot get most of them on your own – you need the help of other characters to retrieve them.

Ah, the early days of home video gaming… Archaic, frustrating gameplay, and simple concepts that are blown out of all proportion… Valhalla – like Carnell Software‘s Black Crystal – is a game that was mostly hype over content. There is a modicum of fun to be had playing Valhalla, but overall the experience is a turgid one.

One interesting thing to note about the publisher: the late, great John Peel was the chairman and founder of Legend, and Valhalla was its first game. Two more Spectrum games were released by LegendThe Great Space Race in 1984, and Komplex City in 1985.

More: Valhalla on Wikipedia

Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Nintendo 64

Conker’s Bad Fur Day was a surprising 2001 release – on the Nintendo 64 – for British developer Rare, in collaboration with Nintendo.

What is surprising about it is that it is an “adult” game – meaning: it contains cartoon characters behaving in ways that you don’t normally see in a Nintendo game, like vomiting on people’s shoes, making sexual innuendo, and using mild swear words.

The game begins with a cinematic Clockwork Orange-style scene, with Conker (a squirrel) looking over the top of a glass of milk as the camera slowly tracks backwards while a pseudo Beethoven musical score warbles away in the background. You know – or at least should know – at this point what kind of game this is going to be… And that is: extremely satirical, and with maybe a bit of a screw loose…

When Conker’s Bad Fur Day eventually gets going the first thing you have to do is get rid of Conker’s hangover, which is an unusual way of introducing a player to the game. Then you go on a surreal 3D platform adventure, full of Pythonesque characters, toilet humour, silly and poor taste jokes, endless tasks and puzzles, tons of film references, and of course the occasional boss battle (including one where you fight a giant turd).

Conker’s Bad Fur Day is a game that will appeal to adults who like puerile humour, and also to children as a “forbidden” game that “must not be played under any circumstances”, but they all do… It’s actually not that bad in terms of its ‘adult’ nature, and doesn’t contain anything too contentious, which is why Nintendo allowed Rare to make the game in the first place.

More: Conker’s Bad Fur Day on Wikipedia

Pengo, Arcade

Sega‘s Pengo is an arcade classic from 1982 and is a block-pushing maze game starring a cute penguin called – you guessed it – Pengo.

Pengo must push the ice blocks around to squash the Sno-Bees, while at the same time avoiding any contact with them. He can also push the diamond blocks together, which stuns and makes the Sno-Bees vulnerable for a short period of time. And one other ability he has is to ‘push’ and the perimeter fence to stun any Sno-Bees chasing him (and once stunned they can be killed by walking over them).

Pengo is both visually and sonically appealing, and also very challenging. Like many early arcade games: it’s no kid’s game, even if it might look like one.

Another classic from Sega‘s early catalogue, Pengo and has been re-released and re-made a number of times, so remains popular to this day.

More: Pengo on Wikipedia

Millipede, Arcade

Millipede is a direct sequel to Atari‘s Centipede and was first distributed into video game arcades in 1982.

It’s basically the same trackball-controlled gameplay as before, but with a few changes and enhancements.

You control a small elf (yes, an elf – called Archer) who can move anywhere within a small area at the bottom of the screen. Millipedes – long, multi-sectioned insects – move side to side and down the screen, turning when they hit a mushroom (or the side of the screen). What this basically means is that hitting mushrooms makes the millipede move down the screen quicker, so shooting the mushrooms and removing them from the millipede’s path helps keep it higher up the screen for longer. The ‘elf’ fires constantly if you hold the fire button down, but – crucially – he will not fire another bullet until the last one has gone. So shooting becomes tactical at certain times.

Differences to Centipede include: DDT bombs that can be shot once and will kill any insects caught in the blast radius; a bonus level where a swarm of bees replace the usual millipede; the choice of whether to start at an advance level before the game starts; and the introduction of a variety of new enemy bugs. The millipede itself also moves faster than the centipede in the previous game, which makes it harder to hit.

Millipede is a fast and enjoyable shooter from the early days of video game arcades. It’s also been converted to many home systems and is still popular today. Considering that it’s been 37 years since it’s release, that is quite remarkable.

More: Millipede on Wikipedia

Basketball, Arcade

This is the 1979, black and white arcade game, Basketball, as developed and manufactured by Atari Inc. It had two trackballs on the cabinet – one for each player.

Atari Basketball is a one-on-one game with ridiculously simple controls and objectives. For a single coin you got a three minute game, and either played against the computer or a second player. Adding more coins gave you more time, and the aim was simple: score baskets; score points; be the highest scorer.

Compared to video games now Basketball looks a bit ridiculous, but – believe me – when this was in arcades in 1979 it was pretty dazzling stuff. In fact, this was one of the earliest video games I remember playing, and I also remember hurting myself on the trackball by nipping the skin on my hand between the trackball and the cabinet! It hurt a lot, which is why I remember it so well after so long has passed (40 years ago!)…

Atari Basketball was also one of the first two-player games I remember playing – against both my brother and my dad (my dad used to play basketball so this game was attractive to him). It’s definitely fun two-player, for a short while at least.

While this is nothing like the basketball games of today, it was an early, important seed in the genre. It was the first basketball game to use the side-on, high-angled view of the court, which you see all the time now. It wasn’t uncommon to see Atari Basketball cabinets in video game arcades up and down the United Kingdom in the early 1980s and it almost certainly had an considerable influence on other video games that followed it. Even if it does look a bit lame by today’s standards… 🙂

More: Basketball on Wikipedia

Mr. Wimpy, Oric

It could be argued that the Oric version of Mr. Wimpy is better than the ZX Spectrum version. It does look slightly better graphically, but I think that a more diplomatic solution would be to say that both are as bad as each other…

Maybe that’s a little harsh. Maybe it isn’t. It depends on your point of view.

Both games feature the same two-screen sections – fetch the food (times three), then a blatant BurgerTime rip-off. Both games have flickery sprites and colour clash. Both games have unremarkable gameplay. Both games have sketchy AI on the enemies… Need I go on?

The Oric version has a better attract screen and a more colourful Mr. Wimpy sprite, so is the best. There – that’s solved that one… 🙂

More: Mr. Wimpy on Wikipedia

Mr. Wimpy, ZX Spectrum

Mr. Wimpy is an early ZX Spectrum game from Ocean Software, first published in 1984. It is based on (and licensed from) the Wimpy chain of restaurants – in particular their mascot: Mr. Wimpy. Wimpy restaurants were more widespread in the 1980s than they are today, but this was still a surprising release from Ocean.

What is not very surprising is that Mr. Wimpy is a clone of BurgerTime, although it does have an extra level that you have to play through before getting to the BurgerTime clone.

That first level is a simple ‘fetch’ game where Mr. Wimpy walks from the left side of the screen to the right, picks up an item of food, then returns back to the starting point – the caveat being: if Mr. Wimpy is touched by one of the moving hazards he loses the item and must try again.

Mr. Wimpy is neither a particularly great game, nor a particularly memorable release from Ocean, although it is an interesting curiosity from the mists of time. Is it still worth playing today? Of course it is! 🙂

More: Mr. Wimpy on Wikipedia

Amidar, Arcade

Konami‘s 1981 arcade classic, Amidar, is a maze game with a difference.

Rather than moving through a maze (a la Pac-Man), you instead move along the edges of a series of interconnected boxes, trying to ‘paint’ them a different colour (or pick up coconuts, depending on the level). If you manage to paint around all four sides of a box it fills itself in, and the ultimate aim on each level is to fill every box on-screen. Which is not easy because there are a variety of chasing monsters and they are tricky to avoid.

The key to getting anywhere in Amidar is to learn the movement of the enemies. They move ‘deterministically’. Meaning: to set, recognisable patterns. The game calls this “Amidar movement”. Regular enemies are called “Amidar” and these move left and right, and up and down the screen. A single enemy, called a “Tracer” moves around the outside of the maze at the same time. If you watch enemy movement carefully you can avoid them and go about your painting duties. That is, however, until the Tracer has done a certain number of ‘laps’, after which point it starts to chase you.

You do have a ‘jump’ ability to help you, although pressing jump makes the enemies jump – not you. They jump, and you move underneath them. Which is weird, but it works well enough and can save your skin when in a tight corner. You start with only three jumps but can be awarded more.

Another useful thing to remember is that you can attack the Amidar if you colour all four corner boxes in the maze. The Amidar change colour and you have a short space of time in which to touch them to kill them for a bonus.

As the game gets harder the mazes become more complex, and more enemies are added. And if that wasn’t enough, the time it takes before the Tracer starts chasing you reduces – to the point where it only has to do one lap before homing in on you.

Amidar is another classic Konami arcade game that takes a simple idea and turns it into a challenging and compelling video game. And for that it should be fondly-remembered.

More: Amidar on Wikipedia

Horace and the Spiders, ZX Spectrum

The third and final Horace game on the ZX Spectrum, written by William Tang and published by Sinclair/Psion in 1983.

Horace and the Spiders is yet another ‘clone’ game, this time copying Space Panic and also elements of Pitfall.

The game is split into two distinct stages. The first one sees Horace walking along a side-scrolling cavern and jumping over spiders that come his way, then climbing moving spider silk strands to cross a ravine. The second stage is a single screen platforms and ladders game where Horace must stomp holes in the web platforms so that spiders fall into them, and when they do he must stomp them again to kill them.

Like Hungry Horace and Horace Goes Skiing, Horace and the Spiders is a game that many see through rose-tinted spectacles – the memory of playing it as a kid is stronger than the game itself. In truth: it hasn’t aged well, and isn’t much fun to play nowadays.

But at least Horace himself has become iconic among Spectrum fans.

A further ‘official’ Horace game, called Horace in the Mystic Woods, was released for the Psion 3-Series palmtop range in 1995, but it wasn’t written by William Tang. Further to that, a ZX Spectrum conversion of Horace in the Mystic Woods was released by indie coder Bob Smith in 2010. Other fan-made Horace games exist too, including Horace Goes to The Tower, released in 2011. It seems that our love for Horace continues ever onwards, in spite of his rather chequered past…

More: Horace and the Spiders on Wikipedia

Horace Goes Skiing, ZX Spectrum

Hungry Horace author, William Tang, also produced this sequel – Horace Goes Skiing – the same year as its predecessor: 1982. It was again published by Sinclair/Psion.

This one is part Frogger clone and part skiing game, and is slightly more playable and enjoyable than its predecessor.

Horace starts off having to cross a busy road to get to the ski slope. The traffic is fast, relentless and deadly, and finding a gap to make it through is not easy. Get hit by a vehicle and Horace must pay $10 for an ambulance. And – since he starts with $30 – that gives him three lives to begin with.

Survive the road, and the scene changes to a horizontally-scrolling slalom course. Horace skis down the screen and his speed is dictated by how much you turn him left and right. If Horace is facing directly downwards he’ll accelerate to top speed. If you turn him left and right he’ll turn and slow down. The route to success is lined with coloured flags, and only by carefully controlling Horace‘s speed and direction will you make it between them. Bash into a tree or a hill and Horace‘s skis will cross and he might break them. If he does, it’s back to the road for another pair (or game over if he doesn’t have the cash).

While Horace Goes Skiing is definitely better than its predecessor, it’s still not what I would call a “classic” game – even for the Spectrum. Sure: it’s steeped in nostalgia, but that’s not good enough on its own. If you were going to play it today, you’d probably be tired of it in 15/30 minutes.

More: Horace Goes Skiing on Wikipedia