The ZX Spectrum games that ought to be on Steam
Speccy kids unite, you have nothing to lose but your games
If you’re British and you’re old, then you love the ZX Spectrum. (Or the Commodore 64, I suppose, but not both. Never both.) Personally, I’m what they called a “Speccy” kid, and I have carried a deep and profound love of the elderly microcomputer’s cassette tape screeches, colour clash and long, long load times into my adult life, despite the fact that – and please don’t get upset, purists – many of the great Spectrum games don’t hold up in the cold light of the modern day. It’s not that the games are necessarily bad, more that they were tremendous for their time. Still eminently enjoyable, but they require the player to get their head into a certain zone, to put up with what are inarguably quite archaic controls and mechanics.
Oddly enough, there are some Spectrum games on Steam, thanks to a publisher called Pixel Games. However, with the utmost respect to their output… these are not the kind of games that are going to foster interest in the Speccy amongst modern players. Of course, that may well not be the point, but I’d be a little taken aback if even avowed old-school gamers were going to bother picking up the likes of gardening simulator Pedro, a game that scored 63% in Newsfield’s iconic Crash magazine back in the day, or Sam Stoat: Safebreaker, which did a little better at 68%.
They do have some better stuff like Auf Wiedersehen Monty (above), an enjoyable but ridiculously difficult platformer, and for all I know I’m mistaken and they’re cleaning up – I truly hope so – but nonetheless I’ve thrown caution, sanity and licensing restrictions to the wind and rustled up a few Spectrum titles that I genuinely believe still have the pulling power to bring people over to the format. Is the list based almost entirely on nostalgia? No! Nononononono… well, yes. But as well as nostalgia there’s also the sort of informed reasoning that the modern games journalism consumer expects.
It’s an obvious one to start with, but Bug Byte’s Manic Miner is still a tremendous little platformer that’s only dated by its lack of a save feature. The level design in this timeless single-screen jump-’em-up is still unimpeachable, if at times esoteric. But it’s the kind of esoteric that’ll make your heart sing, so it shall. Miner Willy’s jump arc remains a thing of perfectly acute beauty, the simple acts of toddling left, right and leaping pushed to their absolute limits across 20 screens of captivating collecting. Every stage features new and increasingly bizarre enemy sprites, from penguins to toilets, and the sheer precision of it all remains joyous to behold. It’s wild that a game from 1983 perfects a formula so absolutely, but it’s as fun to play now as it has ever been. Telling, indeed, that the 2002 remake for Game Boy Advance changed pretty much nothing except the visuals. Which they also shouldn’t have changed.
Similarly brilliant is The Trap Door, based on the classic claymation series, developed by lone programmer Don Priestly with his then-signature enormous sprites and a leaning towards evolving the Dizzy-style of ferrying puzzle pieces to and fro into more of a storytelling experience chronicling the long-suffering Berk’s never-ending ordeal of satisfying “The Thing Upstairs”. Look, it’s a great show, get it watched.
The point is that this game is still pretty much precisely as enjoyable as it ever was, which is very. Each level sees The Thing Upstairs tasking Berk to fetch him a certain foodstuff – first, a can of worms, which is pretty straightforward. Next, though, it’s something called “Eyeball Crush”, which is much more involved in its production. Third, you need fried eggs, but where the hell are you going to get eggs…? The castle environment is small and consistent, meaning each of the puzzles becomes about working with a minor number of variables that can still escalate in interesting ways. For example, you may need to open the titular Trap Door to release more worms for your can, but what if you accidentally free something much worse that you’ll then need to contend with. It’s all pretty great and constantly engaging, with the rather slow movement giving the whole thing a pleasantly chilled-out pace despite being fairly time-critical in its challenge.
Finally, the quite brilliant - and also fairly obvious - pick Deathchase was voted the greated Speccy game of all time by Your Sinclair magazine back in ‘92. While that’s a matter of opinion, it can’t really be denied that this 16K marvel delivers an action-packed experience that retains its power to thrill thanks to its sheer simplicity. Taking inspiration from the speeder bike chase in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Deathchase sees you piloting your craft through a cluster of oncoming trees, blasting away at rival bikes and passing helicopters for more points. Alternating from day to night between stages, the latter offerings throw in limited visibility to add to your woes, while the concentration required to beat each stage becomes more and more hypnotic. It’s a sort of “trance game”, really, putting the player in their finest Jeff Minter state of pure reactions. The skill it requires is almost entirely inverse to how basic its control scheme is – fast, slow, swerve, shoot – and regardless of how laughably archaic it may appear at first glance, it’s next to impossible to stop playing once you pick it up.
It is nice to see some Spectrum games on Steam, but to really bring the thing back it’s necessary to put the work in. I can dream about a Spectrum equivalent of the incredible Atari 50 compilation, but odds are it’s not going to happen. A shame, because the Speccy deserves more than a little respect considering its undeniable importance to the British gaming scene. But that’s another article altogether. Which has already been written a million times.