As a teenager, life is full of uncertainties with all those hormones rushing around and tricky adolescent rites of passage to navigate. Growing up in the early 80s, though, I had one truth I could cling to: Spectrum owners had been put on this Earth to be laughed at by us superior Commodore 64 owners. The poor things thought they had a computer; what they really had was a glorified calculator with colour clash and a beeper. Clearly with its excellent sprites and SID chip, the C64 ruled the world and was owned by the better looking and more intelligent teenagers.
Except sometimes even that truth failed me. Not that we’d ever have admitted it publicly, of course; but if we were being honest, we had to occasionally agree that the Spectrum wasn’t quite as rubbish as we liked to pretend. Sometimes it could actually produce games that even we superior C64 beings had to admit were, well, actually quite good.
Some of these are well known. Chase HQ was surprisingly good on the Spectrum, but notoriously dreadful on the Commodore. Match Day and Head Over Heels were great games on both computers, but the Spectrum originals were the definitive versions.
Sometimes such titles came out of left field and caught you by surprise. One game I remember fondly is Jungle Trouble, released by Durrell Software in 1983.
The game itself was incredibly simple. The action took place on a single static screen consisting of horizontal levels. In the first section, you had to jump safely from rock to rock, avoiding the lurking crocodile. Then it was up a ladder where you had to chop down 4 trees that were inconveniently in the way, returning to the start to get another axe when your existing one became too blunt and also having to watch out for the monkeys who would steal it if you didn’t frighten them off (again requiring a trip back to the start to fetch another). Trees dispatched, you climbed another ladder to the final level where you had to swing across a fiery pit and run hell for leather to the top left of the screen and safety.
As you would expect, the graphics were pretty basic with stick-man like figures. On the basis of the loading screen, I always thought the main character was another monkey but in retrospect, it actually turns out to have just been a generic stick man (which I guess shows how much the imagination was used to fill in the blanks on those early games). The rest of the graphics could have been drawn by a 10 year old, but the point was they worked. Even the bright yellow background didn’t hurt the eyes as much as you might expect.
Like so many simple games, though, where Jungle Trouble really delivered was in the gameplay. It might have been straightforward and repetitive and easy to complete, but it was surprisingly good fun. Once you’d worked out that the first thing you needed to do was collect the axe from the wall at the start, completing the level simply became a question of timing. The whole thing was played against the clock, with the goal of completing the level in the fastest possible time. Despite this, my friend and I spent days over our summer holiday in 1983 totally addicted, each trying to shave that vital second off the best time, taking more and more risks to try and outdo the other and record the fastest run. It’s probably the first example of a speed run game I remember playing.
Jungle Trouble isn’t often mentioned when the best Spectrum games are listed which is understandable given how later developers really pushed the system. Yet, as a simple pick up and play title, it’s hard to beat. The gameplay is straightforward, the controls easy to master and the basic objective instantly clear. All of this gives the game instant “hookability” as Zzap! 64 used to call it; but it also pulls you in for longer gaming sessions. The lure of trying to beat your best time is strong. It becomes even stronger if you invite a friend round and take it in turns, introducing a competitive edge that sees you trying new things or taking risks – which might pay off with a new fast time… or might see you make a mistake which cripples your chance of beating the record.
Jungle Trouble might not be the most advanced or sophisticated game in the world and its long term appeal is limited, but while it lasts it offers a short, sharp blast of fun that will appeal to gamers of all ages.
I clearly wasn’t the only one who rated it, since it was awarded Game of the Month by Crash in its very first issue. It might not be remembered so much now, but it’s a game for which I still retain a certain fondness for… and one that shows sometimes even the Spectrum could produce a good game 🙂