Saturday, April 13, 2024

It Came From the ZX Spectrum – 8-Bit Movie Terror

Keep Repeating, “It’s only a ZX Spectrum game, it’s only…”

As a rule, if a game was released on the ZX Spectrum based on a film, the likelihood was that it was terrible beyond measure. Whether it was seemingly unmissable targets like ‘Ghostbusters’ or “it seemed like a good idea at the time” acquisitions like ‘Howard the Duck’, for every semi-decent ‘Robocop’, there was a ‘Short Circuit’. However, game designers seemed to have a particular disdain for horror movies. Regardless of the fact that so many franchises only required a multi-screen kill-everything-onscreen approach, the end results were almost always unplayably bad. Maybe time has been kind to them? Maybe they hold a nostalgic fizz which outways the atrocious gameplay? Maybe upon re-examination, it doesn’t matter that any attempts to create atmosphere are in magenta and cyan?

Friday the 13th: The Computer Game

We start here as it is perhaps the most startling example of getting every single element catastrophically wrong. ‘Friday the 13th’ was released by Domark in 1986 across the three main players on the home gaming market – ZX Spectrum, Amstrad and Commodore 64. Domark was no stranger to franchise ports, and didn’t have the best track record – their baffling attempt to cash-in on ITV’s ‘Spitting Image’ resulted in ‘Splitting Images’ – a computer version of those grid-sliding puzzles which ended up in the bin in no time. They hadn’t even bothered to get a license and were legally obliged to change the name to ‘Split Personalities’.

By 1986, we were already up to part six in the franchise, ‘Jason Lives’, though this game is considered to be based on part two, presumably so that they could legitimately feature the hockey mask yet not have to give too much in the way of backstory to anyone not familiar with the films. You’d think the set-up was foolproof – don’t get killed; don’t let your friends get killed; kill Jason. Yes. You’d think that.

The loading screen doesn’t inspire confidence but upon starting the game, you know immediately that this is a dead duck, the duck having topped itself long before Jason got to it. The graphics are reprehensible, an attempted 3D view of the action making navigation even more awkward than the rubbish coding dictates. You are free to explore both Camp Crystal Lake’s very green exterior and inside the handful of buildings, including log cabins, barns and, that most familiar sight at camps, a church. The map, which will drive you to despair within five minutes, is dotted with scant few objects to keep you enthralled – a fence; haystacks; trees; archery targets. All in black.

The five levels allow you to control a different character at random with Jason often appearing in disguise as one of your friends. As in real life, you can reveal the true Jason by hitting them. Weapons are scattered around the map in order for you to dispatch the serial killer, though the excitement of stumbling upon a machete or a chainsaw evaporates very swiftly. All the characters look pretty much identical and wander around the map aimlessly, either getting in your way or asking to get killed. Your mates inevitably die very quickly, their avatars changing into a gravestone. An attack by Jason will not kill you immediately, only reduce your strength, though you also have a fear gauge (indicated – yawn – by a hair-rasing image) which rises constantly until you’re literally scared to death.

It’s almost impossible to recognise Jason when you do find him, which in itself is something of an art. You need to prepare yourself for revisiting the same few landmarks many, many times. When you do locate him, the stress levels do indeed rise, as even with him standing right next to you, it’s entirely possible to not register any hits despite you whacking him repeatedly with a pitchfork. Death did at least provide relief from the monotonous sounds of the pad-pad-pad of you walking around in circles.

The only positive thing about the game was the cover and the accompanying marketing campaign. Adverts featuring the game’s cover, a bloodied knife embedded in the hockey mask’s eyehole, attracted the shrieks of mothers nationwide, claiming it was either nightmare fuel or carte blanche for their little ones to go out and murder. Initial copies came with two blood capsules, something to help you try and forget the £8.95 you’d shelled out. No sooner had Domark fanned and then extinguished the fires of fury regarding their adverts, than monthly Spectrum bible Crash magazine went and featured it as their cover game, employing in-house wizard Oliver Frey’s artwork. Reviews were savage across the board, violence which would have been welcomed in the game.

Aliens: The Computer Game

Released the same year as the film, ‘Aliens’ on the Spectrum at least had a modicum of threat to the gameplay, even if it was monotonous and awkward to control your character(s). Released by Electric Dreams, like many of their games, ‘Aliens’ had a certain look to it that gave you a certain confidence that whilst you may not be playing your favourite game, it was at least competently made. In 1985 they had fluffed the opportunity of making anything decent from ‘Back to the Future’ and their conversion of ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ from screen to 8-bit had been decidedly “meh”. ‘Aliens’ was comfortably the best of the bunch, keeping the company’s assistance in trying to cram as many characters from the film into the game, and at least attempting to get some semblance of a storyline.

Giving you a first-person view of exploring an impressively huge map, your visor-like display contributed to a pleasingly claustrophobic atmosphere. The aim of the game is fairly straightforward – kill any aliens you come across, don’t walk on the acidic blood they leave behind, and clear of the growths on the walls which if unchecked will turn into alien eggs. An added thread comes from face-huggers.

The map is so huge that, inevitably, on 48k, it gets very samey, save from going from cyan to yellow. It does mean that when you do come across something malevolent, it is quite startling, especially as you’ll find yourself flapping to find the right button to take action. This is exacerbated by the fact you take control of multiple crew members, meaning that flipping through them can be a real pain and result in unnecessary and very annoying deaths which feel like they are beyond avoidance. You’re unlikely to commit so wholeheartedly to it that you’ll ever discover the queen and her nest, but knowing there’s a tangible end to the game is moderately addictive.

The graphics aren’t bad at all, though you’re stuck with blips in terms of sound. Although one of the better horror film Spectrum games, it is very repetitive and is certainly one of those games you get so far in and know very well you’ll never get any further. Confusingly, there was also an ‘Aliens’ game released for the US market from Activision, though generally speaking, this is considered the lesser of the pair, more akin to a text adventure.

Zombi

Could life get any better than finding a ‘Dawn of the Dead’ game on the ZX Spectrum? ‘Zombi’ had actually been around for quite some time on the Amstrad, and was, in fact, the first release from Ubisoft in 1986, later to become bigger than Jesus due to the likes of ‘Assassin’s Creed’ and ‘Far Cry’. It took until 1990 to appear on the Speccy, and even then only on the 128k console.

So faithful is the game to the film, that even the cover art and loading screen rip off the US one-sheet image. The screen layout is a little similar to ‘Aliens’ with your first-person view surrounded by avatars of the other characters, timers, gauges and action buttons to select. Exploring the mall – yes, the mall! – is a point-and-click affair, and the graphics, though black and white, are rendered quite nicely and allow you to explore the shops inside as well as manoeuvring trucks outside to block the entrance from the hordes.

Happening upon one of the undead is a stressful affair as they appear out of nowhere from an environment which is otherwise very still. Gloomily, if a character does get bitten, they remain in the mall, roaming around the place they died. Fun for all the family! Hopefully, you’ll have your gun handy as zombies, quite rightly, can be destroyed by a headshot (or several body shots if you’re a bad shot like me). A happy-ish ending for all awaits you if you manage to find the fuel for the helicopter on the roof.

The point-and-click approach was not common on the Spectrum and took some time to get used to – or indeed, not get used to.  Despite the 128k, the lack of colour is disappointing (especially considering the bloodshed) and it’s off-puttingly difficult. However – it might just be me – but it’s actually quite frightening. Depressingly for Spectrum owners, the Amstrad version was better in every conceivable way.

Gremlins

‘Gremlins – The Adventure,’ published by Adventure International, somewhat gives away the fact that this was an adventure game, so no guiding Gizmo through obstacles in his toy car. For those unfamiliar, ‘adventure games’ were entirely text-driven, no-joystick affairs, with the player following an online story and making decisions along the way by typing, “pick up spanner” and “run north”. Spectrum players who enjoyed adventure games probably have the largest vocabularies in the country as it often required fourteen different words for ‘spanner’ before the game recognised what you wanted to do. And you think Alexa is bad…

Released a year after the film in 1985, it was pretty much essential that you were familiar with at least the basics of not feeding Mogwai after midnight and ‘bright lights’ to have any chance of success in the game. And by success, I mean getting onto a new screen. Your screen is divided up into a large text area which describes your surroundings and any objects which you may or may not be able to interact with and a garish semi-animated picture of a Gremlin throwing a dart at you, or its legs spinning around in a blender.

Prompts onscreen ask you to type in your next move – “Go north,” you may suggest. Nothing. “N,” you might enter by accident after 45 minutes. You go north. Madness. Unless you type in exactly the words or phrases embedded in the game’s code, you’re stuck. If you have the patience of many saints, you may crack the enigma of what kinds of instructions are more likely to help you make headway – more likely you’ll be angry beyond tablets. The elation at completing an action successfully or – God forbid – seeing a new image, is overwhelming, such minute tip-toes forward being typical of progress in the majority of Spectrum games.

 

On the plus side, the game is heavily influenced by the film – at no point do you feel that this is another title with the odd details changed to make it appropriate. Having seen the film, you at least have a slight idea of what the end result needs to be, even if getting there is less obvious. On the negative side – everything else. Nauseatingly frustrating, hideous graphics and with limited appeal for return visits, it’s for Gremlins obsessives and masochists only.

The Evil Dead

‘The Evil Dead’ was certainly a risky release, though the publisher, Palace Software, at least had no worries about copyright, their parent company being the distributor of the film’s VHS release. The video had appeared in 1983, trimmed slightly in accordance with its cinema release, but quickly found itself on the notorious list of 72 titles the BBFC deemed ‘obscene’, commonly referred to as ‘Video Nasties’. The film was withdrawn, and Palace (unsuccessfully) prosecuted, leaving it in limbo until 1989.

The public outcry about video nasties was such that its title alone suggested far worse than what was actually on screen; Mary Whitehouse labelled it ‘the number one nasty’, a poor review by any standards. Despite the BBFC secretly being satisfied that the film was little more than a fast-paced gory romp, they chose to avoid giving it an age rating, for fear that they may be deemed to be dragging the nation into the depraved gutter.

All of which I mention as the computer game appeared in 1984 – admittedly when the title was on the lips of every outraged Christian, but when no-one could see the film (unless they already owned the X-rated version). Sporting the same cover art by Graham Humphries which appeared on the VHS, the desperation to be controversial could only mean one thing – the game was rubbish.

Easy to play but difficult to love, the game is very simple – collect weapons to kill the baddies and find the Book of the Dead and throw it in the fire. All the action takes place in a poorly-designed log cabin and is viewed from above. The graphics and very basic and there is no gore, no horror and relatively little to connect it to the film. In simple terms, it looks like a lesser version of ‘Atic Atac’.

The marketing certainly did the trick and there were articles in Crash and Sinclair User as to whether this opened the door to other ‘computer nasties’, but this was purely page-filling. A down-the-line curio and the first of several games based on the film(s), all of which have been terrible.

Nosferatu the Vampyre

Based on the Klaus Kinski-starring film by Werner Herzog, ‘Nosferatu the Vampyre’ was an odd title to choose to convert but one which, against all the odds, was remarkably successful. Leaps and bound ahead of the likes of ‘The Evil Dead’, the game is split into three sections: the first, in Nosferatu’s castle, where Jonathan Harker must steal back the deeds to the London property the undead wishes to move into; the second, set in the local Transylvanian village where you control Harker and Van Helsing to destroy endless waves of rats, bats, spiders and wolves; part three where you play Lucy, the vampyre’s weak (or hard) spot, who must lure him to his doom by sexily attracting him to an open window at daybreak.

Having an actual storyline is a great start but the game comes into its own visually, using the same kind of monochrome graphics and gameplay used in another acclaimed film conversion, ‘The Great Escape’, a technique known as ‘Filmation’.  The map is large and highly detailed, with a real feeling of achievement when you gain access to new areas. Far from easy (like 99% of Spectrum games), the variety of enemies and the genuine thrill when Nozzie himself helps the hours absolutely fly by, even if you’re still miles away from completing the game.

NTV is a prime contender for the most successful horror film-to-Spectrum conversions, in fact, it’s close to being one of the best film conversions full-stop. Though hampered, perhaps, by aligning itself to a film many people wouldn’t have seen rather than something more overtly ‘Dracula’, the game was positively reviewed and still stands up today.

Dracula/Frankenstein/Wolfman

All lumped together as they were all released by the same company – CRL – and were all text-based adventure games. But before you start with your booing and hollering, take note! ‘Dracula’ has the distinction of being the first game to be given an age rating – 15, much to the chagrin of CRL who were hoping for a marketing pot of gold 18. Although heavy on text, ‘Dracula’ was interspersed with still images depicting harrowing scenes of evisceration and body trauma. Look:

Extraordinary stuff. The same annoying trappings of guessing which sentences get you anywhere are rife and are made even more frustrating by the faux gothic text which is difficult to read.

‘Frankenstein’ followed in 1984 and it too was branded with a 15 rating, though why is a mystery – despite having a handful of images, there is nothing to trouble even the most feeble-minded player. The game was pretty sizeable, though you could save your progress, should you complete parts one or two, before attempting the final act.

It was 1988 before’ The Wolfman’ appeared, but it was cause for great celebrations as it received the ultimate accolade – an 18 certificate from the BBFC. CRL also released ‘Jack the Ripper’, so someone was clearly buying them. Another werewolf-related game, ‘Werewolves of London’, saw you guiding your cursed being through recognisable London landmarks, but any similarity to ‘An American Werewolf in London’ stopped there.

Bride of Frankenstein

Though other Frankenstein-themed games were released, such as the basic though playable ‘Frank N. Stein’ and ‘Frankenstein 2000’ which at least gave the world the picture below, the best of the bunch was arguably ‘Bride of Frankenstein’, released in 1987.

Across a large, detailed, monochrome map, the bride must find and dig up the body parts of her monstrous beloved to be assembled, bring him to life, and then free him. Experts will recognise none of these elements from the film, nor the appearance of your character which looks less Elsa Lanchester and more Adele. Foes come in the form of skeletons and phantoms which drain your energy until, yes, you’re sent right back to the beginning of an already difficult game.

Made simpler, there’s a good game in here, but the endless searching for keys to unlock identical-looking doors soon gets tedious. Graphically it’s great (comparatively) but there comes a point where constant failure breeds absolute contempt. Here’s the ending to save you the trouble.

Hunchback/Hunchy

Two very different but equally enjoyable takes on the exploits of Quasimodo. An early (1983) release from Ocean Software, the game had actually begun life in the arcades, but the premise and gameplay were simple enough to bring to your TV screen. Across a series of screens, guide Quasi across pits containing spear-armed soldiers, fireballs (?!) and arrows to reach the bell at the far right of the screen. After many, MANY mistimed jumps you’ll reach the end screen where you have the opportunity to free Esmeralda from her incarceration in a tower.

Apart from the pleasing be-humped appearance of your character, there is a great satisfaction to playing the game, which doubtless comes from the simplicity of the original arcade game. Jumping up to catch a swinging rope and sail across deadly objects was to live life as though with fresh eyes, truly this felt like the most realistic thing imaginable. A little-remembered sequel opened up the gameplay a little but lacked the joyousness of the original, as did a messily-designed adventure game.

‘Hunchy’, preposterously, utilises exactly the same gameplay as Ocean’s game but is a disaster graphically with Spectrum’s notorious colour-clash in full effect and poor old Quasi just looking like…well, a little fat man. Defying all of 1983’s expectations, the game does feature speech. Actual speech! Completing a screen will prompt your speakers to emit a barely-intelligible “The bells! The bells!”, whilst your inevitable death is greeted with a very pleasing (for the first 15 times) “Quasimodo”. Incredible stuff.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

Quite how this 8-bit take on a 1978 film appeared in 1986 on the Spectrum is a mystery. Here’s the blurb:

Wimp Plasbot checked in at 9:00 and was just about to begin another day’s work when he discovered that the tomatoes had mutated. Wimp must destroy the killer tomatoes while ensuring that the pizza parlours are still supplied with puree from the bouncing ones.

Surprisingly, the game is far from throwaway. with the 3D graphics and control system aping Ultimate’s instantly recognisable titles such as ‘Knight Lore’ (another werewolf title) and ‘Gunfright’. It is, of course, impossible, but looks great and, perhaps more than any other example, inspires you to run off and check out the film. Such an action will clarify that beyond the name and the cartoony B-movie appearance, there’s not much. There was also a ‘Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes’ game but it would do no-one any favours to discuss it.

3D Ant Attack/Zombie Zombie

To conclude, a couple of questionable titles. The first was the same game rendered with different baddies – the innovative ‘3D Ant Attack’ (oh come on, it’s a bit like ‘Them!’) and ‘Zombie Zombie’, with lurching ghouls taking the place of massive insects. Way ahead of their time in terms of isometric graphics and gameplay, you can play as either a male or female character (not both) to rescue innocents trapped by giant ants. It’s very playable and oddly stressful, anxiety which only increased with its semi-sequel, ‘Zombie Zombie’

The surprisingly morbid premise here was to lure zombies atop the blocky landscape and usher them over the edge to plunge to their deaths. A helicopter could be apprehended to move blocks around to make them tall enough to be a very serious health hazard, not a million miles away from the game, ‘Cyclone’. The sparse environment gives the game a feeling of a vastness which may be a little misleading but there’s no denying that when you have a zombie stumbling after you, it’s more than a little disconcerting.

Daz Lawrence 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “It Came From the ZX Spectrum – 8-Bit Movie Terror

  1. Fantastic stuff. Not a Spectrum title but might I add the less than impressive 1983 Texas Chainsaw Massacre on the Atari 2600.

    Truly terrifying and like the film psychologically damaging but unlike Tobe Hooper’s classic not in a fun way.

    Great article btw!

    1. Cheers mate! Yes, it was very tempting to cover other formats. I’m sure I’ll succumb to temptation!

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