RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES heads back to the 1980s, and a wasted childhood sitting at his first computer, with a selection of spooky computer games for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum
In the fledgling days of the home computer, masses of small companies eagerly flooded a booming market with software for the various machines competing on the market.
Arguably, no machine was more beloved by Brits than the humble Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Available in 16K and 48K versions (yes, that’s kilobytes!), it was the first colour computer to retail below the £100 mark, and an entire generation of programmers cut their teeth on it, including some of the most important games developers of the future.
Like many of my age, I made my first steps in computing with a Spectrum. I also whiled away countless hours playing games, and it was only natural that a number of horror-themed releases would end up in my collection. From this, I’ve selected five titles which give a rough introduction to the fare that was on offer, ranging from the brilliant to the terrible, but all from British software houses.
So, connect the cassette player and load up these creepy offerings, although unlike in the 80’s, you won’t need to wait several minutes to sample each one.
Atic Atac (Ultimate Play The Game 1983)
We begin with an absolute classic. Arguably, no software house was better than Leicestershire-based Ultimate when it came to stretching the possibilities of what a humble Spectrum could do.
In this arcade adventure, the player has to locate three pieces of a golden key, in order to escape from a vast, sprawling haunted castle. There is the option to play as a knight, wizard or serf, with each character having different methods of walking through the walls of some rooms.
Along the way, Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s creature (shown here) and various other nasties are encountered. Addictive, creepy gameplay never got any better than this.
Dracula (CRL 1986)
It’s now commonplace for video games to be classified in the UK by the BBFC. However, back when CRL voluntarily submitted their epic, three-part text adventure based on Dracula, it was a real novelty.
Perhaps guessing that their gory renderings of character demises in the game might stir up controversy in the sensitive climate of the time, the makers secured a 15 certificate for the title, a move which actually generated a lot of very good free publicity. However, a disappointed CRL opined that they were hoping to get an 18!
Author Rod Pike would follow up with Frankenstein (1987) and Wolfman (1988).
The Rocky Horror Show (CRL 1985)
CRL cut their teeth on horror themes with this admirable stab at adapting Richard O’Brien’s musical horror comedy Rocky Horror Picture Show. In a laudable early attempt at gender diversification in gaming, the player chooses whether to be Brad or Janet, then sets about releasing their partner from the spell of Frank N. Furter’s De-Medusa Machine.
Accompanied by a digitised rendition of The Time Warp, various characters from the story appear along the way: There’s the ongoing threat of Eddie, who is defrosting with his motorcycle as the timer ticks away, as well as the ongoing danger that the player may find themselves liberated of their clothing and encountering Frank himself (as seen in the screenshot).
The Evil Dead (Palace Software 1984)
It is sometimes forgotten that a great deal of the success of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead was down to the dogged persistence of its British distributor, Palace Pictures. The company decided to branch out into computer games, and their runaway theatrical and video hit seemed the ideal property to develop.
Sadly, this was one to be filed under “interesting failures”. The elements didn’t quite gel and the gameplay was somewhat clunky. The Spectrum version clearly disappointed Palace, who eventually gave it away as a free game with later witch-themed hit Cauldron in 1985 (a superb game which I may well cover in detail at a later date).
Versions of The Evil Dead for the rival Commodore 64 and BBC Micro platforms did make it to the shops, but weren’t much better.
Frank N Stein (PSS 1984)
In which the professor navigates his way around 50 levels, assembling the body parts for his creation. On the way, he has to avoid various foes including snails, bats, ice, man-eating pumpkins and even a malevolent jack-in-the-box.
A relatively simplistic game on the surface, it turned out to be a bit of a grower, the kind of game that kept you compulsively having “just one more go” way into the early hours. Trust me, I’ve been there.
Worth noting: the loading screen may well be an intentional nod to Hammer’s Horror Of Frankenstein.