Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The History of Zzap! 64 – Part 1


Picture the scene. It’s the early 1980s and the home computer boom is exploding across the UK. From John o’ Groats to Land’s End, homes across the country are being invaded by ‘micro computers’ as thousands of British kids excitedly rip open the wrapping paper on a Christmas or birthday present to reveal a ZX Spectrum, Vic-20, Oric-1 or – if they were really lucky – a Commodore 64.

A computer (alongside the snooker table and BMX) was the most coveted present of the 1980s and many parents were more than happy to oblige their children. With little more than a vague notion that owning a computer would equip their beloved offspring with essential skills for life in the rapidly approaching C21st century, mums and dads across Britain parted with quite enormous sums of money (the price of a C64 in 1984 was £230 – the equivalent of £540 today!) to ensure that their son or daughter had a computer at home.

Of course, most teenagers only had one thing on their mind when it came to computers. Learning how to word process, produce a spreadsheet or build a database was no doubt a useful thing to learn, but most kids were interested in one thing – games. Just like the music business in the 1960s, the games industry of the 80s grew at a rapid rate.  By 1984 the biggest selling computer games, such as Jet Set Willy and Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, were shifting hundreds of thousands of units and it was quickly evident that there was a lot of money to be made in the games industry. With sales of computer games growing exponentially it was no surprise that in 1984 dozens of new software houses sprang up and literally thousands of new computer games hit the shelves.

For the game hungry teenager this was both a blessing and a curse.  The good news was that there were hundreds of new titles coming out every month. Never before had gamers had so many games to choose from. However, the bad news was that a very large percentage of them were absolute tosh. A number of publishers were guilty of churning out games to meet demand with little care for quality or the consumer. The average price of a game in 1984 was £6.50 - which was a good few week’s pocket money - so you had to be very careful.  Many a cassette was adorned with awesome artwork that hid an awful game.

In this pre-internet era, game buying guidance was available in the form of computer magazines.  Commodore User, Commodore Computing International and Commodore Horizons were the most widely read C64 magazines of the early to mid-eighties, whilst multiplatform magazines such as Computer & Video Games covered the ZX Spectrum, the BBC, the C64, the Amstrad and to a lesser extent the Oric-1 and Dragon 32.  The quality of these magazines was mixed to say the least, with some having an almost ‘anti-games’ attitude.  Commodore Horizons, for example, contained a thin smattering of half-baked game reviews reluctantly written by journalists who would probably have been much happier writing copy about circuit boards than zapping aliens.

The exception, in the early years, was Personal Computer Games.  Launched in July 1983 this excellent magazine was devoted to the fledgling culture of gaming and - I think it’s safe to say - was the pioneer of the modern videogames magazine.  Its writers were young, witty and, most importantly, understood and loved computer games.  Personal Computer Games (PCG) was edited by Yeovil lad and publishing-millionaire-to-be-Chris Anderson.  Yet, despite its brilliance, by February 1985 it had disappeared from the newsagents’ shelves for ever. Why PCG suddenly vanished is a bit of a mystery - one rumour was that a lack of advertising revenue had killed it off. Whatever the reason for its demise, it was a terrible shame and (as evident in the letters page of Zzap!64 issue one) gamers up and down the country were gutted.

As Chris cleared out his office, 150 miles away, in the sleepy Shropshire town of Ludlow, freelance artist Oliver Frey, Oli’s brother Franco and their business partner Roger Kean had recently founded the publishing company Newsfield. The origins of Newsfield Publications can be traced back to the late 1960s when Oliver Frey met Roger Kean at the London Film School.  The two quickly became close friends but when the course ended in December 1970 each went their separate ways.  Zurich born Frey, unable to get work in the film industry due to regulations over foreign workers, returned to Switzerland and Kean got a job as an assistant film editor at the BBC.

Yet the two weren’t parted for long. In the early 70s, Roger jacked in his job at the BBC and joined Oli in Switzerland. Together they spent a year trying to get a commercial film company up and running but were ultimately unsuccessful. In the end, Roger returned to England and resumed being a film editor while Oli remained in Switzerland drawing War Picture Library comic book stories for Fleetway Publications.

Again, the separation didn’t last long. Due to the exchange rate between Sterling and the Swiss Franc, Oli was getting less and less return for his work and decided to relocate to England where he was reunited with Roger Kean. The pair settled in North London and Frey found regular work as a freelance illustrator and worked for numerous publishers including IPC Magazines and Oxford University Press.

Throughout the seventies his reputation as an artist grew and the work he was commissioned to do became increasingly prestigious.  He worked on ‘The Trigan Empire’ and ‘SOS International’ taking over from legendary comic book artist Don Lawrence; and then in 1978 his work reached a global audience when he provided the comic book art for the wonderful opening sequence to Superman: The Movie.

In October 1982 Oli and Roger left the hustle and bustle of London for the olde worlde country charm of Ludlow in Shropshire.  A short while later they were joined by Oli’s brother Franco. Franco had developed an interest in the emerging home micro scene and was in contact with a German company who were keen to import ZX Spectrum games. Franco bought himself a Speccy to research the market and, as the three of them play tested games on Franco’s new computer, they had the idea of setting up a mail order service.  A partnership was established in June 1983 and Oli was given the task of drawing illustrations for a magazine advertisement and mail order catalogue while Roger and Franco worked on the business side of things.

Roger and Oli were keen on short, sharp titles, and Kean — as a JG Ballard fan — had always liked the title Crash despite its rather negative computer connotations. A month later, the first ad for Crash Micro Games Action appeared, appropriately enough, in issue one of Personal Computer Games magazine.

Crash Micro Games Action was an instant success with the Spectrum community and within a few months the idea of turning the catalogue into a magazine was born.  Crash was proposed to WH Smith, who immediately accepted and was duly launched on 13 January 1984 at a cover price of 75p.
With its rebellious attitude and brutally honest approach to games reviews, Crash was an instant success and within only a few months it was selling tens of thousands of copies per issue. Oli, Roger and Franco had come up with a winning formula; but not content to rest on their laurels, the Newsfield team looked around to see how they could expand and build on their accomplishments.

The most obvious opportunity beyond the Spectrum world was the rapidly growing Commodore 64 games scene. By 1985 gaming was growing quicker on the C64 than on any other computer on the planet, but existing Commodore mags were reluctant to take it seriously. Commodore User, Commodore Horizons and Your Commodore lacked both a genuine love of games and the energy and wit to write about them enthusiastically.  In fact, other than Crash, the only computer magazine with a genuine love of gaming was Personal Computer Games, so it must’ve been a pleasant surprise when the Crash office phone rang one day in 1985 and on the end of the line was PCG editor Chris Anderson.

On hearing on the grapevine that Newsfield were thinking seriously of launching a C64 magazine, Chris rang Roger Kean from a phone box off Oxford Street and put forward himself as editor. His reasons were several, but principally 1) he was disenchanted with PCG’s publisher VNU; 2) he wanted to concentrate on a single format title; and 3) he hated the daily commute between Yeovil and the PCG offices in London. Roger and Chris discussed the possibility of Chris setting up Zzap! in Yeovil and soon after Chris resigned his PCG editorship and joined Newsfield. It was a great coup for the lads from Ludlow. PCG was a ‘real’ (London-based) magazine and Newsfield had been dubbed by EMAP as ‘rural pirates’. Chris wanting to join Newsfield was both a ringing endorsement and significant recognition of what the Crash team had achieved to that point.

After a few discussions, and an agreement to drop the originally suggested names of ‘Sprite and Sound’ and ‘Bang!’ (one idea was to have three magazines for the Speccy, 64 and Amstrad called Crash! Bang! and Wallop! respectively), Chris threw himself into his new post and within a couple of months Zzap!64 was born.

One of Crash’s unique features was to use school kids to review games.  The thinking behind it being that reviews would be more credible if they were written by the kind of kids that were buying the games and that this would create a close relationship between the magazine and its readers.  This worked surprisingly well in Crash, but Chris Anderson was adamant that the reviews in Zzap!64 weren’t going to follow the same pattern.  Chris didn’t want Zzap to be written by reluctant game-hating ‘computer journalists’, but neither did he want a bunch of school kids piling into the office at half past three every day.  Chris had brought reviewer Bob Wade with him from PCG, but he wanted two more writers so that each game could be reviewed by at least three people. 

In the end, a solution was found in the form of two nineteen year olds who had recently been finalists in a PCG competition to find Britain’s greatest gamer.  It was a perfect fit as they were both exceptional gamers and also displayed a flair for writing.  Their names were Gary Penn and Julian Rignall.  So, with experienced editor Chris at the helm and the enthusiastic review team of Bob Wade, Gary Penn and Julian Rignall in place, the job of bringing Zzap!64 issue one to life got underway in earnest.

Zzap!64 first hit the shelves on April 11th, 1985.  The cover of Issue One featured a brilliant piece of Oliver Frey art depicting a scene from the game Elite, and the magazine enticed the would-be buyer with the promise of an ‘Incredible 50 pages of reviews’. Issue One was a mammoth 132 pages long and featured 39 game reviews.  The highest scoring was Firebird’s Elite with 95% - Zzap’s first Gold Medal game - and the lowest was Activision’s Web Dimension with a paltry 27%.  In addition to the reviews, Issue One featured:

a highly amusing letters page known as the ‘Zzap! Rrap’
the Zzap Challenge in which Julian Rignall defeated Gary Penn and Bob Wade at Impossible Mission
the Zzap!64 Top 64 (1. Boulder Dash, 2. Impossible Mission, 3. Decathlon, 4. International Soccer, 5. PSI Warrior)
A suitably off beat column by psychedelic programmer Jeff Minter
An in-depth article about the C64 games industry featuring David Tomkins from Commodore, Tim Chaney from US Gold, Ian Stewart from Gremlin Graphics and Andy Walker from Taskset; all of whom waxed lyrical about the 64’s capabilities and its rosy future
An interview with Tony Crowther which revealed that he didn’t actually play games and wasn’t very keen on Jeff Minter
A massive tips section which included beautiful maps of The Lords of Midnight and The Staff of Karnath
An article about music software which judged that Activision’s Music Maker was the best (85%) while Quicksilva’s Ultisynth (46%) left much to be desired
The White Wizard who provided the low down on the Adventure games scene
Zzap! Flash in which ‘Ed Banger’ revealed sneak previews of upcoming titles like World Series Baseball and Thing on a Spring as well as reporting that Boots had cut the in store price of the C64 by £80 to a more family budget friendly £150 
And a little guy in the margins known as Rockford

Packed with content and bursting with a humour and energy that even made Crash look a little tame, it was 132 pages of brilliance.

Compared to its contemporaries, Zzap!64 was light years ahead. Like its big brother Crash, Zzap was designed to promote the thrill of playing games. From Issue One, games were scrutinised by two or three reviewers to present a balanced spread of opinion, and the very best games - the Gold Medals and Sizzlers - had colour coverage of two and sometimes three or four pages in length.  Zzap! captured the spirit of a fanzine but had the substance of a professional publication, and while in the very early days it may have been a bit amateurish in places, it struck a chord with its readers who instantly fell in love with it. Somebody once said that a great magazine is like a good friend dropping by. I couldn’t agree more. Every month I looked forward to Zzap!64 turning up at my front door and I absolutely loved the time I spent reading it. It made me laugh, it made me think and it developed in me, at a young age, a love of reading which I have kept for the rest of my life.

So, there you are – Part One of my History of Zzap!64. I hope you enjoyed it. Join me next time when I’ll be looking at issues 2, 3 and 4. An era of great games – Pitstop 2, MULE, Dropzone, Way of the Exploding Fist and Beach Head 2 – but a tumultuous time behind the scenes with office relocation, editorial disagreements and … well you’ll just have to wait until next time to find out!

Martin C Grundy

Friday, 27 January 2017

Impossible Mission

Chapter One

Impossible Mission

On 19th July 1984, the largest recorded earthquake ever to hit mainland Britain struck. When the 5.4 magnitude quake hit the Llyn peninsula in north-west Wales, tremors were felt as far away as the Isle of Man to the north, Dublin to the west and Manchester to the east. There were many reports of minor damage to chimneys and masonry throughout Wales and England with the biggest concentration of damage in Liverpool, located around 65 miles northeast of the epicentre.  Minor injuries were also reported in the areas closest to the quake, and rockslides occurred at Tremadog in Gwyned. One hundred and twenty miles from Gwyned on Plodder Lane in Farnworth, Bolton a minor disturbance was felt as a few ornaments rattled and my ten-year-old self was woken up a little earlier than expected.

That morning at school the playground was abuzz with earthquake stories. Gavin Greenhalgh said that all the cups fell out of the kitchen cupboards in his house. Collin Brooks swore blind that, in Farnworth town centre, the quake's impact was so violent poor that he was thrown out of bed and all the glasses in The Shakespeare were smashed. Everyone had a story to tell. It was an exciting event. An earthquake in Farnworth. It's not the sort of thing that happens every day.
I wasn't too sure about the accuracy of some of these stories but I didn't say anything. Collin was adamant that he’d been ejected from his eiderdown by an earthquake and I didn't want to upset him, after all Collin was my best friend.

The July earthquake wasn't the only thing to shake the British Isles in 1984. Disturbance, disruption and disorder were everywhere. It was the year of the Miner's strike, Michael Burke's famine report from Ethiopia and the IRA’s attempt to blow up the Conservative cabinet in the Brighton bombing. However, in my ten-year-old world such troubles and turmoil were as distant as if it were happening on Pluto – which back then was still a planet. The land beneath my feet was shifting but to me things appeared much the same as they'd always been. The news was something that came on the telly at six o'clock after Crackerjack. Of course, I knew it was real, but it didn't really affect my day to day life too much.

The issues that really concerned my primary school friends and me were:

What's the best football team?
What bike have you got?
(Raleigh Grifter)
What trainers do you wear?
(Adidas Kick) and
What computer do you own?

By the mid-eighties thousands of kids across the country had been given a computer as a birthday or Christmas present (alongside Rubik’s Cubes and snooker tables they were all the rage). Across Britain, parents were keen for their children to be competent with these new-fangled things of the future and at Highfield CP School in Farnworth things were no different. Gavin Greenhalgh had a BBC Model B, Michael Platt had an Atari 800, Stephen Eccles had a Sinclair ZX Spectrum and I had a Commodore VIC-20.

My best friend Collin owned a Sinclair ZX81 until one day in December 1984 when he traded up big time to a Commodore 64. With this single purchase, Collin leapt from the bottom to the top of the playground computer charts. Col's new machine was the daddy of the 8-bit home micros. Not only did it have a massive 64K memory and an inbuilt synthesiser called the Sound Interface Device (affectionately known as SID), most importantly it could play games that were almost as good as you saw in the arcades. Getting a new computer was a big deal anyway but picking up a Commodore 64 in 1984 was a momentous occasion. Fortunately, not long after he became the proud owner of this supercomputer, he invited me to come over for tea. It was an offer I couldn't refuse.
That school day passed by like thousands before it and thousands more to come. Mrs. Baxter taught us Reading, Writing, Maths and a bit of History and Geography. I can’t remember too much about Mrs. Baxter but I recall that she wore think jam jar glasses, was friendly and patient (unlike the board-duster-lobbing terror that was Mrs. White in Junior 2) and had a huge bosom which, of course, was the source of much amusement amongst ten-year-old boys. Eventually the magic half-past-three arrived, the bell rang and we were free. After a quick visit to the cloakroom (which always smelt of bleach, rubber and urine) Collin and I grabbed our coats and bags, legged it out of the school gates into the cold winter air and headed straight for the pub.

I should point out here that Collin lived in a pub and that we weren’t gasping for a couple of pints in the local hostelry.

As with all kids, we had the shortest route home down to an exact art. This involved coming out of Highfield School’s main gates then crossing Marsh Lane and heading down Central Avenue until the bit where you got to a small scruffy patch of grass where no ball games were allowed. Here we took a detour down a back street that led to Laburnum Road and Dixon Green Park (the world’s shitest park). Then it was across the park, onto Glynne Street at The Canary pub and down to the bottom of the street to The Shakespeare public house. The journey took us about twelve minutes and I’ve just checked it on Google maps – that’s still the quickest route on foot.

The Shakespeare was a quasi-gothic public house set opposite Farnworth Park. It was built in 1926 as a drinking house aimed at the local middle class clientele. No doubt its literary name and attractive park side setting was intended to appeal to Farnworth’s finest but by the mid-eighties local middle class drinkers were thin on the ground. This mattered not though as I remember that the place was always busy with the buzz of conversation punctuated by burst of laughter.

I loved The Shakespeare for three reasons:
1. It was exotic because it was a pub not a house.
2. It had a pool table and a sit down cocktail cabinet Galaxian video game.
3. My best friend lived there.

We arrived to find the usual mix of locals in the snug and Collin's stepdad David behind the bar. David was from Birmingham but inexplicably sounded Australian and was known by everyone as ‘Australian Dave’. I can't remember the exact dialogue but it probably went something like this:

Oz Dave: G'Day lads!!
(Okay, maybe he wasn't that Australian)
Collin: Hiyah
Me: Hello
Oz Dave: Good day at school?
Collin: Alright.
Oz Dave: What did you do today?
Collin: (starting to walk to the staircase) Nothing much.
Oz Dave: You alright Martin?
Me: Yes, thanks.
Oz Dave: You here for tea?
Me: Yes. Thanks.
Oz Dave: BONZA!
Collin (ascending the stairs to me) Come on.

Upstairs was the living quarters where Collin lived with his mum, brother Andrew, Australian Dave and an Alsatian Border Collie cross known as Sam  - who was the first obstacle to overcome. At the top of the stairs was a stairgate. This existed for two reasons – firstly, to stop Sam from escaping downstairs and trying to either bite or hump the locals, and secondly, to stop the drinkers from doing pretty much the same upstairs. Today, as usual, behind the stairgate was Sam. Sam was lovely but also a little bit scary. However today he was sleeping contentedly and a gentle pat on the head brought a contented groan and a good stretch.

I always enjoyed spending time with Collin's family. His mum, Lynne, is a kind and lovely woman, Dave is a funny fella with a deadpan sense of humour and his brother Andy is an all-round top bloke. Col lives in New Zealand now with his girlfriend Susie and I see him maybe once every few years when he comes back to England. We email and WhatsApp each other now and again and swap mixtapes on Spotify. He’s a good guy - I miss him.

Back in the eighties his mum and David had a couple of pubs including The Pikes View in Bolton on Derby Street (which doesn’t go anywhere near Derby) and The Man and Scythe in Kearsley (a town once name checked by the KLF in ‘It’s Grim up North’). Neither pub exist now. The Pikes View is an Asian grocery store and the Man and Scythe was hacked down to make way for a block of flats.

Anyway, back at the Shakey – as it was it was affectionately known – Col led me to the bedroom he shared with Andrew where the mighty Commodore 64 dwelt. It sat atop a set of MFI drawers in front of a great big 21-inch Ferguson telly.
"Collin!" came a distant voice.
It was his mum.
"Won't be a minute."

He disappeared in the direction of the kitchen and I plonked myself down on his bed.
I looked over at the C64. It didn't look much different to my VIC-20. A darker beige case but the same brown keys with funny symbols on the front and the same four function keys. It looked pretty much the same. I regarded my blurred reflection in the convex TV screen and waited for him to come back.

A minute later he returned with a plate full of hot toast covered in proper butter and strawberry jam.
"Here we are."
"Skill!" I replied and, as we tucked in, Col switched on the computer.
After a few seconds (the telly took a while to warm up) a blue screen appeared. A royal blue centre, a pale blue border and pale blue text. It was a bit fuzzy looking.

"Hang on," he said and fiddled around with the back of the telly. "This telly's crap."
I laughed. ‘Crap!’ One of my new favourite words.
"What games have a you got?" I asked.
"These," said Col pulling out a drawer and fishing out three cases. Two were housed in small single cassette cases and one was in a black cardboard box. "You pick."

I can remember the games perfectly. They were Bugaboo the Flea by Quicksilva, Jet Set Willy by Software Projects and Impossible Mission by Epyx - that was the one in the mysterious black box.

I picked up Impossible Mission.
"Is this any good?"
"I'll show you."
He slid the tape into the C2N cassette player, held down SHIFT and pressed RUNSTOP. The Commodore responded with:


So he did.

In Britain in 1984, unless you were wealthy enough to own one of Commodore's new shiny 1541 disk drives, the games you had came on cassette. This wasn't the case in the US where almost all C64 owners had a disk drive and tapes were a rarity but over here the 1541 was so expensive (it cost as much as the C64 itself) that most of us made do with tapes. Tapes had advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side they were cheap. You could buy plenty of games from as little as £1.99 by publishers such as Mastertronic and even the biggest releases rarely cost more than £9.99. In contrast disk games were twice the price with around £12 to £15 the norm. So you could buy tape games with your pocket money and even the more expensive ones you could save for within a few weeks. However, the disadvantages were plenty. Tapes were tricky customers. A poor quality tape could easily unravel in your C2N. If you didn't catch it quickly it would be stretched, twisted, snapped and ruined for good. Tapes were often stubborn and could test your patience. While one tape loaded perfectly another may not because of the alignment of the magnetic heads in the C2N. This meant that you needed a tiny screwdriver and an ocean of patience while you fiddled around trying to find the perfect alignment to load the game. When it finally worked you'd often discover that this alignment only worked for this particular game and that for the next one you wanted to play you had to bugger about with it all over again. Grrrr.

The final problem with tapes was the loading time. It's hard for kids to believe now that we often had to wait 15 minutes for a game to load. This is as shocking to my children as the fact that we only had 4 TV channels to pick from, and that they went off for a bit during the day. In time, with the introduction of fast-loaders, games loaded on tape in about three minutes but in the early days it was a long wait with often nothing better to look at than a pale blue screen.

So, what did we do while we waited for games to load? Wrestle! Many a loading time was passed wrestling with my school friends on sofas, beds and carpets. In time loading screens, loading music and even games helped to break the boredom and pass the time but for two prepubescent boys with energy to burn a good old wrestle was a great way to kill 15 minutes. If not each other.

Although waiting for games to load on tape was boring it did add a sense of anticipation to proceedings. When you bought a new game, got home and loaded it up the loading screen was the first indicator of what it was going to be like. A good loading screen with some great music often indicated that a decent game was on its way. If today you look up top C64 loading screens you’ll find that most them belong to top games. I guess that if the game developer went to the trouble of adding details such as a top quality graphic and piece of music then the chances are that the same amount of attention to detail would be evident in the game. However, this was not always the case. Cobra, Miami Vice and Howard the Duck all had fantastic loading screens but the games themselves were absolute shite.

The CBS version of Impossible Mission didn’t have a loading screen. Just a pale blue screen that every so often was interrupted by messages which read:


After each FOUND message the tape stopped and Collin pressed the space bar to continue the loading process. It was a very drawn out affair and it took the best part of 20 minutes for the game to load.

As games took so long to loaf back then, there was plenty of time to give the box art and manual the once over. Just as you would read through the sleeve notes on a new record as you listened to it, this was the time to read the game’s instructions and find out what it was all about. Impossible Mission was a very polished and professionally presented game. Inside the matt black cardboard box sat a red labelled cassette (resting on a bed of protective foam) and a document labelled ‘TOP SECRET’. To submerse you in the role of Special Agent 4125, Impossible Mission came with a ‘MISSION BREIFING’ document entitled ‘OPERATION: Atombender’. Opening the document revealed the mission details and a delightfully tongue in cheek dossier about your target – the dastedly Elvin Atombender.

The pages that followed included an intelligence report with information about Elvin’s stronghold, info about Elvin’s security system and a surreal and disturbing report from the last agent who tried to crack Elvin’s stronghold.

The dossier impresses the importance of the mission with ‘You have to stop him, or the world is going to be terminally late for dinner tonight’ before signing off with the far from comforting ‘Well, that’s all you’ll get out of me. The rest is up to you. After all, saving the world isn’t supposed to be easy.’

This was all new to me. On the VIC-20 most games were copies of early arcade machines such as VIC Avenger (Space Invaders) Jelly Monsters (Pac-Man) and Menagerie (Frogger). These unassuming arcade clones were time killers which didn’t require a backstory, characters or themes. They were the Angry Birds and Candy Crush or their day. Easy to pick up and play, they were games that whiled away the boredom when there was nothing else to do. Impossible Mission, however, was clearly a very different kind of game with far greater depth and sophistication.

The MISSION BRIEFING document was not only amusing but also very effective. When the game finally loaded, you couldn’t wait to get started. After 20 minutes of blue screen nothingness, the game had finally loaded and the title screen appeared.

“I’ll go first?” said Col. This was at once a statement and a question.
“Fine,” I said. I was happy for Col to show me the ropes.

He plugged his Quickshot joystick into port 2 and hit the fire button with his thumb.

The first thing that caused my jaw to drop quicker than the post-Brexit pound was the celebrated speech that opens the game. In the hammiest of English accents, the James Bond villain inspired Elvin Atombender welcomes you to his lair with the mocking line “Another Visitor. Stay a while. STAY FOREVER!” It’s Elvin’s equivalent of ‘Mr Bond, we’ve been expecting you’ and it’s a brilliant way to open the game. He’s letting you know, right from the off, that your mission is not only as impossible as the title suggests, but also that you will die in the process. Speech had been used in computer games before but here it wasn’t just a ‘Let’s Play Gorf!’ type attract gimmick. The speech in Impossible Mission was an important piece of the game’s universe. It created atmosphere and tension and made you sit up a little in your chair. Evil Elvin was talking directly to you – and you’d better listen. In fact, he was taking the piss out of you. He thought you didn’t have a chance and you knew that he’d laugh manically when you came to your inevitable sticky end.

Yet it wasn’t just the awesome audio that made Impossible Mission remarkable. Like the speech, the game’s animation was streets ahead of anything I’d seen on a computer before. Following Elvin’s greeting, Special Agent 4125 would appear in the elevator ready to plumb the depths of Mr A’s secret chamber and thwart his evil plans.  Pulling down on the joystick moved the lift downwards and as soon as the lift reached a floor, Agent 4125 exited the elevator and ran across the screen. And my goodness how beautifully he ran! The running man animation was so fluid and majestic that my jaw dropped yet again whilst, simultaneously my white towelling socks were well and truly knocked off.  It’s hard to appreciate now how stunning it was the first time you watched old 4125 run and somersault across the screen.  It was like seeing Toy Story in 1995 and gasping at the animation, the likes of which you’d never seen on the silver screen before.

As the animation of Special Agent 4125 was so special it’s really no surprise that it was the first element of the game to be created. In an interview with Retro Gamer magazine, coder and designer Dennis Caswell confessed that he nicked the imagery from a library book about athletics. "I animated the somersault before I had any clear idea how it would be used. I included it because the animations were there for the taking."

With such stunning visuals and audio you might think that Impossible Mission was a case of style over substance but you’d be very wrong.  It was a terrific game with a depth of gameplay that kept you coming back again and again. Its inspiration was extremely eclectic with Caswell citing a diverse range of cultural influences. The 1980 Unix-based dungeon crawling videogame Rogue inspired the randomised room layouts. The movie War Games gave Caswell the idea of the player infiltrating a computer-controlled complex. The influence of the 70s electronic game Simon is apparent in the musical checkerboard puzzles, whilst the 1960s TV show The Prisoner inspired the games’ black hovering orbs. The other obvious influence was the American TV show Mission: Impossible in which secret agents performed covert missions against dictators and evil organisations that threatened global security.

On its UK release Impossible Mission was loved immediately by critics and gamers alike.  Just as Ultimate’s Knightlore had set the standard for Spectrum gaming in 1984, Impossible Mission did the same for the C64. Home Computing Weekly gave it 5/5, Personal Computer Games scored it 10/10 and in Zzap!64 it was voted the C64s number one game in the magazine’s first ever readers’ poll.
Impossible Mission set the bar incredibly high. Polished presentation, amazing speech, incredible animation and absorbing gameplay placed it head and shoulders above the competition. To put it into context, Jet Set Willy, Sabre Wulf and Daley Thompson’s Decathlon were the biggest selling games of 1984. These were decent games but none of them came close to the high standard set by Impossible Mission.

Not only did Impossible Mission blow the competition out of the water, it also revealed the potential of the C64. It showcased the computer’s power and capabilities and gave us a glimpse of what the machine was capable of (the C64 had only been available in the UK for just over a year at this point). Just as the Playstation rewrote the rules with the introduction of 3D in the 90s, the Commodore 64’s capabilities would set the standard for 8-bit gaming for years to come.

With such a massive success under his belt you would expect Dennis Caswell to have produced a raft of awesome C64 games but unfortunately it didn’t happen. Caswell worked on the Epyx split screen racer Pitstop 2 but that was about it. Shortly after Pitstop 2 he left Epyx and moved from the C64 to coding the Apple II, Apple Macintosh and later the IBM PC. It’s a real shame that Dennis didn’t make another C64 game (the 1988 sequel Impossible Mission 2 was outsourced to a Hungarian development team). Who knows what wonderful game he would’ve come up with? Yet I guess we shouldn’t be too upset. Caswell may have given C64 gamers only one game but my goodness it was a beauty.

After tea Collin and I played a couple of other games which included the aforementioned BoogaBoo the Flea - in which you had to help the titular flea escape from a deep cavern by avoiding a dragon and jumping to freedom - and Jet Set Willy a zany platform game which was a big hit on the Spectrum but disappointingly looked exactly the same on the C64. These games were more simple affairs than Impossible Mission and both were fun to play but they lacked the slickness and wow factor of the Epyx title.

After a while it was time to put down the Quickshot, say goodbye to Col, Andy, David, Lynne and Sam and head home. It was a school night after all. Mum would be expecting me home by half eight which was the same time that dad left for his night shift at the post office.

As I walked home that crisp December evening my mind was racing. It had been a head-spinning day in what was a tumultuous year. 1984 had had ominous connotations since George Orwell used it as the setting for his dystopian novel 35 years earlier. And although we weren't living in a totalitarian state under the all seeing eye of Big Brother (not just yet) it was certainly a time of fear and paranoia as the Cold War intensified and tensions between the USA and the USSR increased. I may have been too young to fully comprehend the issues that faced the world in 1984 but I certainly felt its uneasiness.  My seventeen-year-old sister had kindly informed me that the world was going to end in 1984 and her constant playing of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Two Tribes seemed to support her theory. It was the year that the BBC broadcasted 'Threads', a drama set in the North of England during the outbreak of nuclear war. Threads scared the living daylights out of everyone that saw it and added to the very real sense that global nuclear war could erupt at any moment. It was as if the earthquake that made the country shudder back in July was still rumbling on. Unrest, unhappiness and antagonism were everywhere and, as we lurched towards 1985, there was no sign of any of it stopping.

As I made my way up Plodder Lane my immediate concern was to get home safely and quickly. I needed to get a move on as I didn’t want to be late and start the aforementioned World War Three from our front room. I had a pretty strict 8.30 curfew and it was fast approaching as I reached the block of terraced houses where we lived.  If I missed it, I might get grounded and that would be a nightmare. It would mean no more after school visits to The Shakespeare and, of course, that would mean no more Col and no more Commodore 64. A prospect too terrible to even contemplate.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Do You Remember the First Time?

The Very First

Like many kids that grew up in the 1980s, my first contact with a computer was at school. At Highfield County Primary School in Bolton, like thousands across the country, computers were being introduced to classrooms as part of the government’s ‘Micros in Schools’ scheme. With traditional British industries in a state of steep decline, hopes were pinned on the fledgling computer industry to help Britain find its feet again as an economic force in the world.

Our headmaster, Mr. Williamson, opted for the BBC Model B computer.  This was a wise choice for two reasons: 

1. The BBC Model B was a powerful computer for its time.
2. The BBC (the broadcaster not the computer) had recently launched the Computer Literacy Project to ‘provide the opportunity for viewers to learn how to program and use a microcomputer.’ At the heart of the BBC’s project as a weekly TV show called 'The Computer Programme’ which was ‘designed to be useful to viewers in schools and colleges’ and was based around the BBC model B.

Unfortunately, in the early 80s British schools were rather cash-strapped and Mr. Williamson could only afford one computer. This meant that opportunities for kids to use it were very limited. It lived in the library on a specially made trolley and was only wheeled out now and again for the most trusted of students.  I have a few vague memories of typing in simple BASIC programs and playing Granny’s Garden – a game so terrifying it’s a wonder that it didn’t frighten a generation of kids off computers for life - but that’s about it.  Using the school’s BBC was good fun but the chances of getting your nine-year-old sticky fingers on it frequently were slim.  I quickly realised that the only way to get regular access to a computer was to have one at home. This meant persuading my parents to buy me one - so that’s exactly what I did.

In the early-80s, computers were thought of as not only expensive but also rather exotic so it wasn’t going to be easy to talk Mum and Dad round. Fortunately, Government education secretary Kenneth Baker made it somewhat easier by announcing that computer literacy was essential for the prospects of British children and after months of mithering, Mum and Dad finally gave in.

After some deliberation between the Oric 1, Mattel’s Aquarius and the Commodore VIC-20, Dad chose the Commodore computer.  Compared to some of the other budget machines the VIC was pretty high spec. It had colour graphics (unlike the ZX80 and ZX81), decent sound, a 3.5K memory and a proper keyboard.  A proper keyboard was important to Dad for two reasons. Firstly, he had some notion of giving the computer thing a whirl himself - and his big fingers would’ve struggled with the keyboards of the other computers - and secondly because the majority of programs for the computer would need to be typed in as this was a much cheaper way of obtaining software than buying it. 

In 1983 the average price of a computer game was £6.50, which was quite expensive, and I’d have to save up my pocket money for weeks before I could afford to buy one. The cheaper option was to buy one of the many magazines which offered type in listings. Mags such as Commodore Horizons, C&VG and Commodore User could be bought for as little as 75p and contained a wide range of programs which included games, simple spreadsheets and home accounting packages.

I can remember vividly the day Dad brought the VIC-20 home. It must’ve been a birthday present as it was a windy autumnal day when Dad proudly strode through the front door with it under his arm.
It came in a long white oblong polystyrene box which had a cardboard sleeve that slid over it.

We carefully unsheathed it and opened the polystyrene box. Inside was the computer itself – encased in cream coloured plastic with dark brown keys and four fat orange function keys. The box also housed a heavy fudge coloured wedge shaped thing, a small silver tin box, a couple of black cables and a spiral bound manual. We laid out all these pieces on the coffee table in the front room and gazed upon them in wonder as if they were the parts of a space ship that had crash landed in the back yard.

After a quick consultation of the manual, we attached the computer to the fudge coloured wedge – the PSU - then plugged in the silver tin box (the modulator) but then hit a problem. The computer came with a regular UK three pin plug but back in the early 80s our house was in desperate need of a rewire and we still had the old circular plugs with the three round pins that went in a horizontal line. Fortunately, Dad had an adapter. It was currently employed to connect the radiogram (I know it was the 80s but our house was still stuck in the 60s) to the house power supply. Dad disappeared behind the armchair for a moment then returned triumphantly with the adapter. The next task was easy – plug the other wire (the one which connected the modulator to the TV) into the telly’s aerial socket. I took that duty upon myself and pulled out the Ferguson TV from the corner of the front room (this was quite easy as it was on casters), removed the TV aerial and pushed the computer cable into the telly’s aerial socket. Done.

This was it. The big moment. Mum was called in from the kitchen and Our Susan was summoned from her bedroom to witness the momentous occasion.
“Ruth! Ruth!” Shouted Dad to Mum.
“Susan! Susan! We’re switching the computer on!” I yelled upstairs.
Soon the family was gathered around the computer and the excitement was building. I could hardly contain myself.

“Well, go on Martin, switch it on,” said Dad.
After a quick check that all the cables were secure, I flicked the switch on the side of the VIC and a red LED light blinked into life. There was a sudden increase in tension in the room. I clambered around the coffee table, careful not to trip over the 2-meter-long wire that connected the computer and the PSU to the power socket, and switched on the TV.
This is it! I thought. It was like lighting a firework. I had lit the fuse and now it was time to stand back and watch the splendour and magic unfold before our eyes.
Unfortunately, like so many fireworks, we were rather disappointed when nothing happened.
“What’s wrong with it?” asked Mum.
“I don’t know.” said Dad.
“Let me have a look,” I said.
I checked all the cables but everything looked fine.
“I’ll be upstairs if you need me,” said Our Susan rolling her teenage eyes and disappeared back to her bedroom and Duran Duran.

I picked up the manual again, had another read through the first few pages and spotted the error of our ways. The TV had to be tuned to the computer’s signal. The manual recommended using Channel 6 or above as channels 1, 2, 3 and 4 were engaged with television stations. I pressed the 6 button and flipped open the little secret door on the front of the telly that hid the tiny wheels that you used to tune the stations in. The manual recommended leaving the computer on so that you could find the signal easily and after a bit of wheeling - first all the way down and then quite a long way back up - a ghostly image eventually slid into view and as I slowly tweaked the wheel to get as sharp a picture as possible this appeared on the screen:

Mum and Susan were summoned once again and this time both were suitably impressed. Everyone had a go at typing their name in and we all wondered in disbelief at how we could make our own name appear on TV.

After a shaky start, the VIC was a hit and a few minutes later we stared at it with further astonishment when Dad learned this impressive piece of early BASIC programming from the manual:

20 GOTO 10


Now that blew our minds.


If all of the above seems a bit unlikely, you have to remember that this was three decades ago. Before computers existed, you could only watch the television – you had no way of affecting what was on your TV screen, you just switched it on or off and watched whatever was being broadcast at the time. You were passive. But this was different. Now you could make whatever you wanted appear on your TV screen. You were active. Empowered. It was a revelation. A revolution.

Unlike consoles such as the Atari VCS, which played cartridges that were plugged into them, the 8-bit computer was an open invitation to get involved, it handed control over to the user. Yes, you could buy ready-made software on cartridge, disk or tape but you could also create your own. With a bit of time, patience and brain work you could even produce a video game and make money. It was the beginning of a revolution that was to sweep across the world over the next 30 years and give birth to what grew into the biggest entertainment industry in the world.

I loved my VIC-20 and had lots of fun with it. At the time my best mate Collin had a ZX81 and next to that the VIC looked awesome. Over time I built up a collection of decent games which included Avenger, Blitz, Amok, Chariot Race, Mickey the Brickey, The Perils of Willy. Menagerie, Skram-20, Hunchback, Shadowfax, King Tut, Shamus, Gridrunner, Metagalactic Llamas Battle at the Edge of Time and the legendary Jet Pac. All these games and many more I hungrily devoured as my new-found love of computer games blossomed.

Yet although I adored playing games on my VIC-20 I’m not sure that Mum and Dad were quite as enamoured. The machine was supposed to help me develop my computer literacy skills, yet all I really did was play games on it. In fact, rather than helping me with my schoolwork the computer seemed to get in the way of it as I’d spend more time on Jetpac than I did on my homework.  I did put in a few frustrating hours trying to learn some BASIC programming, but my heart wasn’t in it. At the age of ten I was far more interested in playing games than learning how to create them.

Over time Mum and Dad abandoned any hope that the computer was going to be of any educational value and accepted that I was going to use it as a games machine. In a similar way Dad never took up computer coding either. After typing in a few Commodore Horizons listings that never worked he gave up and went back to his lifelong love of growing vegetables on his allotment.

Back at school the BBC computer continued to be wheeled out once in a blue moon as a rare treat for the good kids. However, the fun was cut short one night in 1984 when the school was burgled and the precious computer was pinched. It was a sad day when a visibly upset Mr. Williamson announced in assembly that the school computer had been stolen. A sense of mourning hung over the school hall as my friends and I realised that we’d never venture into Granny’s Garden again.

Yet although the school’s computer was gone it certainly wasn’t forgotten. It left a lasting impression on myself and many of my school friends and kindled an interest in computers that lasted for the rest of my life. The school BBC was a brilliant introduction to computers. It may not have been the coolest computer around but it was an amazing machine for its time and will always hold a special place in my heart. 

Thanks Mr. Williamson.