C64 Mini Review

Sometimes the Gaming Gods both smile on you and curse you at the same time. When I saw that the C64 Mini was due to be released on 29 March, it was great timing as far as I was concerned. I took the rebirth of my beloved C64 on the day after my birthday as an omen and dropped many *ahem* subtle hints to the lovely Mrs. RetroReactiv8, who did indeed pre-order one as a slightly delayed birthday gift.

Of course, those same Gaming Gods couldn’t bear me to be entirely happy, so whilst my C64 Mini was indeed delivered on 29 March, I wasn’t in when it arrived. Sadly, it was taken back the post office depot, where it spent a long, lonely Easter Bank Holiday weekend before I could rescue it. Four days knowing my Mini was less than a mile away, yet unobtainable, was like some sort of torture.

Happily, though, it was definitely worth the wait because one or two niggles aside, it’s easily one of my best retro gaming purchases.

C64 Mini - box

It’s clear that this product is aimed firmly at capturing that nostalgia element and boy does it succeed. The whole thing came in a great looking box with the contents well packed. It really did take me back to that Christmas in about 1983 when I first unwrapped my original C64. I felt that same tingle of excitement as I carefully unpacked all the bits and this continued when I saw the actual device. I hesitate to use the word “cute” about a piece of hardware, but there is something undeniably attractive about it. The phrase “small but perfectly formed” could have been invented for the C64 Mini. It’s a great looking device that looks perfectly at home alongside some of my larger consoles.

C64 mini - top down

From a setup point of view, it’s well designed too. Plug in the HDMI cable (supplied) and attach the USB power cable and away you go. It’s slightly odd that the device comes with a power cable but not a plug to put it in (presumably to cut costs), but most people are likely to have a plug lying around that can be used. Cables are sufficiently long so that you can attach it to your TV and sit a decent length back it (essential for my ageing gamer’s eyes!). The design has been really well thought out and it truly is plug and play – mine was up and running less than a minute after removing it from the box.

The selection screen for the games is also great, presenting them in a rotating carousel that includes the original box artwork and a brief explanation of the game’s plot/aims. It would have been nice to see the instructions for each game included on this screen rather than just on the website (particularly for the Games series, where each event has different controls) and I don’t really understand why this approach was taken, but it’s not that big a deal. You can also access BASIC from the carousel, giving you the chance to relearn your advanced programming skills by typing things like:

10 Print “Spectrum owners smell”

20 Goto 10

However nice it all looks, though, the bottom line rests on how good the included games are. Previous devices like this have had two key weaknesses: the selection of games has ranged from excellent to makeweight titles whilst the locked down systems have prevented the addition of any further titles. Not so the Mini C64.

Firstly, the included titles are very strong. You get 64 (what else?!) pre-packed games and it’s hard to spot a weak one amongst them. Sure, there are some that I like more than others and some that I’ve no doubt I’ll rarely play, but this is down to personal preference rather than quality (all the included games scored highly in various magazines in their original incarnations). There are plenty of titles fully deserving the description “classic”: Pitstop II, California/World Games/Summer Games II, Uridium, Armalyte, Monty Mole, Boulder Dash… I could go on. Indeed, I spent the first 10 minutes just scrolling and getting more and more excited at the range of games. You can argue till the cows come home that this game or that game should have been included, but at the end of the day, within the complex restrictions of licensing and rights, the developers have assembled an excellent collection.

Anyway, this is where the Mini C64’s other advantage kicks in. Unlike similar retro systems (Recreated ZX Spectrum, Mini NES/SNES), you can actually add your own games via a USB stick. Admittedly, the process for doing so is currently a little cumbersome. You can only use .d64 (disk image) files and you can only store one game on a single memory stick and need to rename it to a specific filename before the system will recognise it,. However Retro Games Ltd have promised to make this easier via a future firmware update, so hopefully this is a short term irritation, rather than a long-term problem. In any case, certain clever people have already provided information online as to how to get round this whilst you’re waiting for the fix. Essentially, though, the ability to load up games of your own opens up the system, allowing you to play pretty much any C64 game.

In my brief experience to date, emulation works well. I’ve not yet played the full range of games, so can’t say that it’s flawless, but certainly I’ve been impressed so far. I’ve seen a few complaints online that certain games run too fast or suffer from a bit of lag, but either I’ve not experienced this or am not familiar enough with the original games to spot it.

The big disappointment is the joystick included with the package. It’s modelled on the Competition Pro (nothing wrong with that) but is sadly nowhere near the same quality. It’s pretty obvious that this is where corners have been cut to reduce production costs. It’s perhaps not as bad as some people are making out online, but it’s a long (long) way from being great. For a “modern” joystick, it’s surprisingly uncomfortable to hold – after just 10 minutes my hand was aching like it used to when I played on my friend’s old Atari 2600. It’s also not as responsive as you’d hope or expect. It’s OK for some titles, but any game that requires finesse or twitch responses will be a struggle. I lost count of the number of times I lost a life on some games because it just doesn’t allow the pixel perfect positioning needed by so many old games. It’s a shame because the rest of the package is excellent, but the joystick lets it down badly.

It’s true that other USB controllers and joysticks can be attached via the in-built USB ports, but it seems to be very hit and miss as to which ones will work. I’d strongly advise you to look on the forums on the Mini C64 website for advice on compatible devices before you buy.

Joystick issues aside, though, Retro Computers Ltd have assembled a very impressive package. Most of the issues I have are minor ones that could be easily addressed through future updates. Like all these devices, you could argue that £65-£75 is a lot when you could set up an emulator on your laptop for free, but there’s definitely a greater sense of nostalgia playing the games on a replica machine. And at the end of the day, for your £65 you get 64 ready to play games, plus the option to add in others. Personally, I consider that money well spent.

Retro Games Ltd should be applauded. They have delivered a product that has appeal for both the existing C64 community and more casual gamers who want a blast from the past. As a dyed-in-the-wool C64 fan (and former owner) you could say I’m biased, but I am waaaaaaay more impressed by this device than any other similar consoles that I own. Retro Games Ltd., I salute you.



Recreated ZX Spectrum [Review]


(image from official ZX Recreated website: https://sinclair.recreatedzxspectrum.com/)

Even as a dyed-in-the-wool C64 owner, I had to admit that the Spectrum – with its iconic shape, rainbow stripe and rubber keys – had a way cooler design. Whichever way you cut it, the functional beige breadbin Commodore was never going to win any design awards.

So when I read about the Recreated ZX Spectrum I was intrigued. Promoted as a Bluetooth keyboard for modern tablets designed to look like a full sized reproduction of the Spectrum, it had promise. The fact that veteran games company Elite was behind it was also promising – who better to understand what the Spectrum meant to the retrogaming community than one of its key game development companies from the 80s? Here at last was my chance to own a “Spectrum”, without feeling as if I’d betrayed my beloved C64.

Then came the price announcement: £99.95. Ouch. Way more than I was prepared to pay for the nostalgia blast and more expensive than buying a real Spectrum at the time. Still, I kept an eye on it, and when the price dropped to just under £30, I put my family on notice that it might be something for Father Christmas to stuff in his sack.

Father Christmas duly delivered and, having had a fair amount of time now to try it out, I can report that the Recreated Spectrum essentially consists of two bits. The first is the actual Bluetooth keyboard, compatible with modern devices. The second is an app that allows you to play a number of old Spectrum games for free, along with a further selection that can be purchased via in-app purchases.

Looking at the keyboard first, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to set up. Over the years I’ve had more fights than I care to remember trying to get Bluetooth devices to talk to each other, but this paired with my iPad instantly and has worked ever since. The only slight complication was that there’s a switch used to change modes, depending on whether you want to use it as a proper keyboard or play the games. Mine was initially switched to Game mode – so when I started typing, it put some very odd characters on the screen that bore no resemblance to the letters I’d actually typed! Once I realized what I needed to do (i.e. had read the instructions!), it worked with most of the apps I use with my more standard Bluetooth keyboard.

What surprised me most was how well it actually works as an actual keyboard. Anybody who ever used a Spectrum remembers how difficult it was to type properly and I was expecting this to be the same. In fact, it’s comfortable to use and pretty responsive (with less lag than my previous Bluetooth keyboard). In short, it has the look and feel of a proper Spectrum keyboard without the problems of a real Spectrum keyboard used to create. It’s not perfect – the Spectrum didn’t have all the keys expected of a modern keyboard so various key combinations have been added to give it full functionality, and these can be tricky to remember at first. It’s also not the best keyboard for very fluent typists (and definitely not touch typists because of those different key combinations). Equally, I wouldn’t want to type up long documents, but in this sense it’s no worse than my existing Bluetooth keyboard – and that cost a lot more and looked far less interesting.

Turning to the games, there’s a decent range of titles in both the free pack and the in-app purchases. Sure, there’s nothing you can’t download for free on the internet, but if you don’t own a real Spectrum, this is the closest you are going to get to recreating that full 80s experience. It’s just a shame that the choice of games is limited. The basic app comes with around 20 or so free games, with around the same number available as in-app purchase (at 79p per game). A website gives you access to a wider array of titles but sadly (as ever), there is no SD card allowing you to add more.

There were plans to develop the app and website further, encouraging more developers to make their games compatible with the keyboard, but this never happened so the device never realised its full potential.

What’s prevented this were the inevitable legal wrangles (what is it with the Spectrum and legal disputes?!) First, some developers/copyright holders claimed they were not being paid appropriate royalties and this resulted in app being pulled from the App store for quite some time. Then there was a disagreement between Elite and one of its manufacturing/distribution partners, which saw production and further development stall. By the time all this was ironed out, interest in the product had waned and the remaining units were simply sold off at a much lower price.

This lack of care and attention can be seen in the app. As far as I can tell, it’s pretty much just a legacy app – no development work, updates or new games have appeared for almost three years now. What’s there is fine, but with further development it could have been so much better. Eventually both the Apple and Android versions are going to stop working as the operating systems update, and when that happens, you’ll just be left with a novelty Bluetooth keyboard.

Given the lack of development and new content, it’s a shame the creators are still choosing to charge for the additional games (adding a further outlay of around £10 if you buy them all). As a gesture of goodwill to the retrogaming community, it would have been nice to make all the games free (although in fairness, that might be tied up with the rights issue mentioned above).

The good news though, is that whilst the app does work, you can pick one of these up for about £30 – £70 less than its (rather optimistic) original RRP. At that price, it’s probably just about worth it, although I do live in fear of the day my operating system updates and the app no longer works…

[Note: since writing this review, I’ve discovered that the device is apparently compatible with the FUSE Spectrum emulator. I’ve not had chance to check it out yet, but if it is, this breaks it free from the limited number of included titles and opens up a whole new world of gaming possibilities!]



A Guide to ZX Spectrum Games 1982-1984 [Book Review]

Spectrum games book

A Guide to ZX Spectrum Games 1982-1984 by Shaun McClure and Hilary Wells was one of the many retro gaming goodies Father Christmas brought me this year. As an active combatant in the Playground Wars of the 80s (on the side of the Mighty Commodore 64, of course), I tended not to pay much attention to the Spectrum gaming scene (unless, of course, there was a really rubbish game with which I could taunt my Spectrum owning friends). As such, I missed out on many decent Spectrum titles and was looking forward to reading this book to find out about them.

It has to be said that the book is a bit of a curate’s egg. There are some (many) great things about it… and then there were things that infuriated me. Perhaps the worst thing is that many of the things that infuriated me could easily have been fixed with just a little more care and attention.

There certainly can be no doubting the books ambition. The Spectrum was a long-lived machine and, thick though it is, this book covers just the first two years of its commercial life. It’s packed with mini reviews of over 200 titles and each game has a decent amount of space dedicated to it. Entries are typically 2-3 pages long and usually comprises of a screen shot, an overview of the game alongside the author’s opinion of how the game plays or what it looks or sounds like. It’s a shame that all the screenshots are monochrome, but given how many images there are, it’s entirely understandable that this decision was taken in order to keep the book affordable (a colour version is available, but costs twice).

One of the book’s real strengths is that it displays an impressive breadth of knowledge of the Spectrum scene. Most books of this nature tend to focus in on the usual suspects – the big name titles with which we are all familiar. And sure enough, many of those games appear. At the same time, however, so do more esoteric titles that won’t be as familiar to many readers – and these are given the same 2-3 page coverage. It’s good to see lesser-known games get their moment in the sun, and the authors should be applauded for the broad approach to selection that they have taken.

This does bring me onto Frustration Number One though: which is a long-standing complaint of mine with this type of book. How were the featured games book selected? It doesn’t appear to be an exhaustive list of every Spectrum game released in that year, nor the bestselling ones. Apart from adventure games (which are perhaps disproportionately represented, reflecting the self-confessed love of them from one of the authors), they don’t appear to be the author’s favourite games (since they freely admit to only playing some of them for the first time in order to write this book), so how was the final list arrived at? I don’t have any issue with the titles selected but it would have been nice to learn more about the thought process behind why this game was included, or that one excluded.

Alongside these mini reviews, there are also several developer interviews, which are fascinating to read. Moreover, like the games themselves, the developers themselves are not necessarily the ones you usually see interviewed and it’s good to hear some different voices from the Spectrum scene. McClure and Wells should be congratulated on producing a book that is both comfortable and familiar, yet offers something new.

The entries themselves are good to read. They are informative and often wryly amusing. It feels like the book is a collection of blog entries written by a talented amateur writer. And that is not in any way meant as a criticism: it means that the entries are easy to read and accessible and not too pretentious or academic. Whilst some of the entries might lack a little polish, the passion of the authors for their subject shines through and at the end of the day, that’s what I care about.

True, there was some repetition (I lost count of the number of times the author criticised a game for its graphics with “This is a Spectrum, not a ZX81”; and there were far too many repetitions of how the verb/noun parser of text adventures worked), but this wasn’t too annoying. It could also perhaps have done with some more careful proofreading (particularly someone who knew how to consistently and correctly deploy an apostrophe), but that’s probably just the pedant in me talking!

In fairness, some of this repetition is because it’s not really a book that’s meant to be read from cover to cover, but is better read a few entries at a time. Equally, there is genuine pleasure from taking a more serendipitous approach, just opening the book at a random page and reading whatever you find. Taking this approach makes the repetition far less noticeable (or at least more understandable, since the author doesn’t know what you have/haven’t read at any point which explains the need to describe what Scramble or Berzerk were again much more natural.)

Despite these various gripes, this was a book I enjoyed reading. I learned about many games I’d never played (indeed, often never heard of) and it’s a brave and impressive undertaking with far more to like than dislike. I’m assuming that there will be more volumes covering the Spectrum’s later years and, having read this, I’m certainly looking forward to the next instalment and will be buying it once it’s available.

Top Ten Tunes in Games – Part 2

After last time’s sequence of audio delights, it’s time for Part 2 of my Top 10 Tunes in computer games. If you want to remind yourself of the rules for selection, then take a look back at Part 1. Otherwise, let’s just get straight on with it.

6. The Last Ninja (Commodore 64)

[Full RetroReactiv8 review here]

The Last Ninja game was a revolution in itself, graphically light years ahead of anything else available at the time, and a good game to boot. The music certainly didn’t let the side down either. Each level had its own music, as did the inter-level loading screens. That’s a lot of tunes – all the more impressive when you consider there wasn’t a bad one amongst them. However, the one that always comes to my mind when I think of this game is the opening level – the Wastelands. Well-paced, perfectly suited to the game and exciting, it underlined what a truly special game The Last Ninja was.

7. Loco (Commodore 64)

Tony Crowther’s train-based game featured a cracking tune from Ben Daglish that made the game almost worth buying just for the music. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized this wasn’t an original composition, but was taken from a Jean-Michelle Jarre album. Indeed, when I heard it performed by him, I wondered why he was playing the Loco tune! Either way, it’s a great tune and this was a great adaptation.

8. Parallax (Commodore 64)

Like many of his contemporaries, Martin Galway produced some amazing sounds on the Commodore 64 and one of his best was the title music for Sensible Software’s first proper title. It’s incredibly atmospheric: the ominous start sets the tone and the reverse arpeggios build on it, with layer upon layer slowly being added to create a complex, overlapping tune. This was a stunning achievement, even with the C64’s renowned SID chip.

9. Rainbow Islands (Amiga)

[Full RetroReactiv8 review here]

Heavily inspired by “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, Steve Turner’s chirpy, jolly tune perfectly suited the cutesy look and feel of Bub and Bob’s second game. The only downside it was pretty short and looped endlessly, so some people found it slightly annoying during longer gaming sessions. Not me; I loved it!

10. Thing on a Spring (Commodore 64)

As Catflap rightly pointed out in his comment on Part 1, it would have been a crime if a Rob Hubbard tune hadn’t featured, but I bet I had you worried for a minute, didn’t I? Out of all his great compositions, Thing on a Spring is the one I’ve gone for. Whilst I never really got into the game itself, it was always worth loading up just to listen to that jolly, bouncy tune which never got old. Of course these days, thanks to the joys of YouTube, you don’t have to wait 20 minutes for the game to load and can listen to it pretty much any time!

The Also-Rans

As I pointed out in the introduction to Part 1, whittling this list down to just 10 entries was an incredibly difficult task – I could easily have done a top 50 or even a Top 100. Eventually, what guided me to my final selection was trying to include a range of composers, rather than having too many compositions by a single person. This meant that some great music didn’t quite make the final cut for a variety of reasons, including:

Commando – another Rob Hubbard classic. It was really tough to leave this one out, as I love it and it’s probably the one I immediately think of when someone mentions Rob Hubbard’s name. At the end of the day, though, Thing on a Spring got the nod because it’s just so goddamn jolly!

Head Over Heels (Commodore 64) – A great piece of music that was mainly disqualified on the grounds that it wasn’t an original piece, with Peter Clarke ripping off Mozart for the main tune. Since I’d already included Loco and wanted to focus more on original music in this feature, Head over Heels had to go.

Trap Door (Commodore 64) – I’ve already mentioned the great music in my full review of this game. It fell victim to the chop mainly because it’s pretty short and most of the game didn’t have much music. Still a great adaptation of the theme tune, though.

Toonstruck (PC). This point and click adventure was filled with great tunes, and few were better than the opening title screen. It mainly lost its place due to my decision to exclude CD-based tunes and only include those from the 8 and 16 bit eras. Unlucky, Flux Wildly!

Top Ten Tunes in games – Part 1

Although I do them only rarely, my Top 10 features (Top 10 C64 games, Part 1 and Part 2; Top 10 Adventure Games, Part 1 and Part 2) tend to be quite popular, so I thought I’d do another one: this time based around game music.

From early on music has been an important part of the gaming experience. Good music sticks in your memory (I can still recall all the tunes in this feature clearly, even though I’ve not played some of the games for years); bad music has you reaching for the mute button to save your ears and your sanity. Gaming musicians deserve to be considered legends of the industry in exactly the same way that programmers are and it’s about time this blog recognised their contribution.

The trouble was, as soon as I started making my list, I knew it was going to be difficult. In the 35 years or so that I’ve been a gamer, there has been some truly outstanding music and whittling it down was hard. To make life easier, I set some ground rules.

RULE 1: No music from CD-based games. This era produced some fabulous music, but the retrogamer in me has always admired the incredible music programmers in the pre-CD age managed to put together despite having so little memory or storage to work with.

RULE 2: 8 and 16-bit games only. Effectively, Rule 1 forces this decision, but I’m happy to go with it, since I’ve always thought of chip tunes as the purest form of computer game music.

RULE 3: Commodore 64 and Amiga Games are your friend. Again, this follows logically from Rules 1 and 2. They were the systems I had growing up, so they are the games I’m most familiar with.

Even with these rules, selecting a final 10 was almost borderline impossible. My first “shortlist” had over 100 candidates (and I thought I was being ruthless when I selected it!). Every time I thought I’d settled on the final 10, I’d have doubts: “But what about ‘x’” or “Surely ‘y’ deserves a place.” In the end, it came down to these titles. They are in no order (other than alphabetical) – selecting them was difficult enough – trying to rank them would have been the end of me!

So here we go with the first 5.

(Note: where possible I’ve provided links to YouTube videos containing the music, which will open in a separate window. I’ve had no hand in making these, so thanks to the various YouTubers for making them available.)

1. Aladdin (Amiga)

[Full Retroreactiv8 review here]

The music throughout Aladdin was incredible. A different tune for every level, with most (all?) adapted from the film’s music. Composers Donald Griffin and Tommy Tallarico did an incredible job throughout. The standout moment, however, had to be the title screen when your Amiga suddenly started singing along to A Whole New World. OK, it was only about lines or so, but I had never heard such a thing in a commercial Amiga game before and it was simply breathtaking. I remember subsequently playing the Megadrive version (generally held to be a slightly superior game) and being massively disappointed that it didn’t feature the singing. 1-0 to Commodore’s Mighty Machine!

2. Battle Valley (Commodore 64)

As I mentioned in my review of Hewson Consultants’ Hints and Tips for Videogame Pioneers audio CD, Battle Valley brings back very specific memories of an early trip to London where I bought the game in the old Virgin Megastore. Misty-eyed memories aside, it’s the tune by Jeroen Tel that really makes the game standout out. From the strident opening chords, it grabs you by the unmentionables and demands to be listened to. The game itself was a decent, value-for-money budget title, but the tune was worthy of a Triple A full price release.

3. Bubble Bobble (Commodore 64)

[Full RetroReactiv8 review here]

Looked at from a logical point of view, this wasn’t a great piece of music. It was lightweight, rather tinkly and repetitive. But that’s the point: it was perfectly suited to the game and after just a few minutes, it was almost impossible not to be singing along to it. The amount I played Bubble Bobble, I’m sure it annoyed the hell out of my mum, but I thought (and still do) that it was a great tune to accompany one of the C64’s best games.

4. Cannon Fodder (Amiga)

If Aladdin was impressive for fitting in four lines of singing, Cannon Fodder was something else, giving us a whole song. Composed by the late, great Richard Joseph and Sensible Software’s Jon Hare, the song was simply brilliant – catchy, quirky and perfectly suited to the game (fun, but with slightly darker overtones). Even allowing for the increased technical capabilities of the Amiga, it was still an achievement to cram a whole song into the game. Sure it added to the loading times, but it was worth every extra second.

5. Forbidden Forest (Commodore 64)

[Full RetroReactiv8 review here]

One of my earliest C64 gaming memories, but a timeless classic. The blocky graphics, varied enemies and slightly unnerving gameplay made it different to anything else out there, and the music was no exception. Two pieces stand out in particular: the title screen music with its energetic, slightly ominous feel and the archer’s victory dance tune. Both superb compositions that really made the C64 sing.


So we get to the end of Part One. If there are any of your personal favourites missing from the list, don’t shout at me just yet – they might feature in Part 2 (unless of course they being with A-F, in which case you can shout!)

Paul Woakes: a tribute

I was sad to see a tweet earlier today from ex-ZZap! writer Julian Rignall announcing that he had just heard that Paul Woakes, author of the Mercenary games died last year, unknown to most in the retro gaming community.

I was going to post a review today. Instead, I thought it would be more appropriate to post a short tribute to Paul and his games. I didn’t know him personally and haven’t played all of his games, but I do feel that news of his death deserves to be noted. I’m sure there will be many other tributes posted online over the course of the next few days, many by people far better placed to comment on his influence. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here’s my personal tribute.

Unlike many of my friends, I wasn’t massively into Mercenary, but even at the age of around 14 I could see what an incredible title it was. At a time when most games were linear, allowing you only to undertake pre-determined actions and go where the programmer had decided, Mercenary offered far greater freedom to explore. The game had a plot and goals, but how you achieved this, and how long it took was entirely up to you. This was a revolutionary concept at the time and the incredible world Woakes created made for an immersive experience where players would often (literally and metaphorically) get lost for hours.

It’s also clear from his games that he was an incredibly talented programmer. Mercenary really pushed the boundaries of gaming at the time, cramming an entire planet into less than 64k of memory – whilst still running at a fair old speed and offering complex and nuanced gameplay. Received wisdom (then and now) said the Commodore 64 wasn’t good with vector graphics. Woakes certainly proved that wrong. The clarity and fluidity of the graphics remain deeply impressive today – more so when you remember the limited technology and tools programmers back then had to work with.

Whilst he is probably (deservedly) be best remembered for the Mercenary series, he was certainly no one-trick pony. Encounter was a blisteringly fast game inspired by the arcade classic Battlezone (scoring a deserved 90% in Zzap! Issue 5) that is my personal favourite of Paul Woakes’ games and still stands up today as a fast-paced, addictive and challenging game.

Equally of note was his creation of the Novaload system, which sped up the loading of games from tapes and made possible some limited entertainment (such as music being played during loading) to keep young gamers’ minds occupied during those often tortuous loading times.

The start of 2018 hasn’t been a good one. Last month we lost the talented Bob Wakelin, whose iconic and varied art graced many cassette covers and magazine adverts, today we learn of the death of Paul Woakes. Sadly, we are going to have to get used to news like this. Like us, our gaming heroes from the 80s are growing older and starting to succumb to the ravages of time.

That’s why retro gaming sites are so important – they help to keep alive the memories of the great games of the era, and the incredibly talented programmers, artists and musicians who created them.

Trap Door (C64) Review

Trap Door title screen

Piranha Software may only have existed for a short period, but they used their time well to release some cracking games that generally made good use of the licensed properties they secured.

One of their best s was also one of their earliest – Trap Door – based on the animated kid’s TV programme of the same name. I’d never watched the programme, but as soon as I saw the Zzap!64 review, I knew I had to have it.

You played as Berk, unfortunate general dogs body to the ill-tempered Thing. Gameplay was pretty simple. Thing shouted down what he wanted you to eat and you had to make the meal, making use of the objects that were lying around and also opening the titular Trap Door to release. Some of these would be the ingredients you needed to make Thing’s meal; others would just cause a nuisance and had to be returned to the Trap Door before you could continue. Fail to prepare a meal in time and Thing would get Very Angry Indeed, which was not good for poor old Berk.

Being a fairly shallow sort of 15-year-old at the time of its release, it’s fair to say that the first thing that attracted me to the game was the graphics. It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time I think most of us were convinced that Trap Door’s huge bold and bright graphics could only have been achieved by some sort of witchcraft. They gave the game an instant visual appeal and set it apart from pretty much every other title of the time. I mean, just look at them. They’re HUUUUUUUGE!!!

Trap Door game screen 2 USE THIS ONE

The music was also highly impressive. This is one of a small number of games where I would sit watching the title screen and listening to the music for several minutes before I hit Start. Composer David Dunn did a great job of converting the cartoon music into a C64 chip tune. Indeed, I can remember – several months after this game was released – seeing the cartoon on TV for the first time, and being disappointed that it was subtly different to the game. I’d argue that Dunn’s rendition is far superior and if anyone thinks otherwise, I’ll shove them down the Trap Door.

Superficial wow factor aside, Don Priestley’s adaptation had a solid game behind it too. Sure, you could argue that the big graphics didn’t leave much room for a complex game and so it wasn’t anything revolutionary (it was essentially a puzzle game that involved collecting and using the right items in the right way), but boy was it addictive. Once you started playing, whole hours could swiftly disappear and, no matter how many times you failed (and you would, repeatedly), you kept hitting that fire button to try again (after a brief pause to listen to the title screen music several times, of course).

In good old 8-bit tradition, the game was both tough and frustrating. The things that emerged from the Trap Door were not necessarily the things that you needed to complete your task, and games often consisted of you frantically (usually vainly) trying to re-capture something that had emerged in the hope that next time, the right thing would appear. From memory, I don’t think I ever successfully served up a single meal to Thing (let alone the multiple meals required to beat the game.) I seem to remember that I once managed to collect two out of the three required ingredients and NEARLY managed to get hold of third, but ran out of time. Such was the game’s toughness that I honestly think that that is the closest I ever came to success.

It didn’t matter though. Trap Door was just so much damn fun, so good to look at and listen to, that I just kept playing regardless of how inept I made Berk look. The game also had a sense of humour that helped alleviate the frustration somewhat. Whilst Berk’s “friend” Boney (a skull) would give you helpful hints about what to do, you could also pick him up and drop him down the Trap Door. This didn’t achieve anything useful, but it did sometimes make you feel a little better about your constant, abject failure.

Trap Door was a cracking game and showed how, with a little bit of imagination, a licensed game could be both a decent game, yet faithful to its source material, rather than just knocking up a series of mini-games based around key scenes (yes, Ocean Software, I’m looking at you). It was an all-too-rare example of a licence done well. It’s just a shame it didn’t do well enough commercially to keep Piranha afloat.

I never played any of Piranha’s other “big character” games (Flunky, Popeye) or indeed this game’s sequel (Through the Trap Door). I had no need to – Trap Door gave me everything I needed. And maybe that also explains why Piranha lasted just two short years before folding – no-one bought their subsequent games because they were all too busy trying to collect the damn ingredients needed to make Thing’s dinner.

Well, it’s a thought…