3D Deathchase (ZX Spectrum) Review

deathchase-title-screen

Mostly on this blog I’ve written about C64 and Amiga games because those were the systems I had growing up. However, I also had a friend who had the misfortune to own a Spectrum and occasionally humoured him by going round to his house to play his games. As a Commodore owner, I always felt superior… until one fateful day when he showed me 3D Deathchase.

You rode a motorcycle through a rather dense and inconveniently placed forest. For some reason I can’t remember, you were chasing 2 other motorcyclists that you had to track down and kill (I think they were criminals or drug barons or something) In order to do this, you had to drive at considerable speed, weaving your way between the trees and avoiding crashes. Succeed, and you got to do it all again – only at night time, which made it even trickier.

Of course, no-one really thought they were on a motorbike. Surely it was a speeder bike from Return of the Jedi (released the same year). Incredibly, in just 16k of RAM, this game captured the same sense of exhilaration and speed that Jedi’s (far more expensive) gave you on the big screen. This was better though, because you actually got to control the bike, rather than watch someone else do it.

It’s hard to overstate just how impressive 3D Deathchase was. Hell, it’s still impressive now, over 30 years after its original release. Back in 83 few thought that any 8 bit machine (let along the humble 16k Spectrum) could do convincing 3D, yet here it was. Nor was it just a tech demo – 3D Deathchase was a damn good game to boot – in my humble opinion, it was the Spectrum’s finest hour.

deathchase-game

Of course, to achieve this, the graphics were pretty basic, the sky was basically a solid blue (or black) background, the playing area was mainly green and the trees bore more of a resemblance to telegraph poles than real trees. Yet like so many 8 bit games, they did their job. They were sufficient to paint a broad picture of the game’s setting and, with Return of the Jedi fresh in our minds, our brains filled in the detail.

Sophisticated or not, they worked and were an integral part of the game’s success. As the game got tougher, the number and density of the trees increased and the game got faster and faster, increasing your chance of a collision. It made for a brilliant, breath-taking ride as you wove through the forest, flying past the trees and often only avoiding collisions by the skin of your teeth.

The tight controls and collision detection really helped here – both were spot on. As the game got faster, you had less and less time to react. Sometimes you seemed to be in a pretty impossible situation yet right at the last minute you’d take evasive action and avoid a seemingly inevitable collision with a tree. It’s hard to describe how good this felt. I can remember my friend’s parents coming to see what on earth we were up to as we were both so caught up in the moment that we screamed and whooped in delight every time we skimmed past yet another tree or caught up and killed another rider.

3D Deathchase is the perfect example of more is less and a very clear demonstration of something that I’ve often written about in this blog – the critical importance of gameplay. Get that right and you don’t need fancy graphics or sound, or even a particularly complex game; get it wrong and all the graphics in the world aren’t going to help. Apart from its impressive 3D effect, 3D Deathchase is about as simple as a game can get and yet it is the single best game on the Spectrum. Fun and frustrating in equal measure, it is the textbook definition of “just one more go” gameplay.

I’m clearly not alone in my love for 3D Deathchase. Co-incidentally, this month’s Retro Gamer has a feature it and agrees that it is one of the Spectrum’s best games. There have also been a number of remakes over the years by other fans, but whilst these are good, the original remains the purest and the best version. Given the advances there have been in both technology and game design that gives you some idea of how big an achievement this 3D Deathchase was.

Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got a rogue speeder bike (sorry, motorbike) to catch.

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