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Blasts from the Past – Part 1

Last year I somehow managed to get volunteered to test out the hardware for the Mega Games Cartridge for the Acorn Electron and ended up writing tools to convert UEF files into ROMs, partly for the technical challenge, but also to see how many of the games that were released on cassette could have been released on ROM cartridge without too much effort. It turns out that, without compression techniques, quite a few would fit into one ROM, and some into two. Testing these ROMs has been interesting from a technical perspective, but it has also been interesting to see how well many of these old games play after 30 years.

Taking off the Rose Tinted Glasses

I'm sure that many people have fond memories of the computer and video games they grew up with, only to have those memories spoiled when they encounter those games again later in life, either by using an emulator or watching a video of some gameplay. Sometimes the mismatch between what the person remembers and how the game looks, sounds and plays can be quite traumatic as the layers of reinterpretation added over the years are suddenly torn away. It's quite difficult for me to get the same experience because I've been messing around with emulators for 8-bit platforms since the end of the 8-bit era, so I tend to experience this through the reactions of other people.

Expectations have also changed over the last three decades. Even those who grew up with fairly simple games seem to have adapted to the latest norms in gameplay, joining those who were born years after those early games were made in complaining about how hard or unintuitive they are to play, how simple the graphics and sound effects are, or, more crudely and tersely, how “crap” they think they are. Years of training on more sophisticated platforms, where players are hand-held through tutorials and often told exactly what to do during gameplay, have made it difficult for them to critically evaluate these old games to find the good parts as well as the superficially bad ones.

A lack of historical perspective also makes some criticism appear less valid. It can be frustrating to hear complaints about a game released in the mid-1980s on an early 80s computer followed by comparisons to computer hardware from later in the decade, or even to games consoles from around the same time. While it is now possible to play with any of the systems from that era via emulation, at the time people's choices were restricted by cost and geography. Some games were better on certain systems than on others, but that doesn't make versions on those other systems less interesting or worthwhile.

Back to Basics

The Acorn Electron wasn't favoured with a good start in its shelf life nor was it blessed with the fanciest graphics and sound hardware. However, for a system that many people overlook now, it managed to accumulate a pretty extensive library of software. Its games were always going to struggle to compete against the flashier releases for other systems, but the only real test for them is how well they used the hardware they were written to run on, not how much better they might have been on more expensive kit. Inspired by this What To Play page, I thought it would be interesting to look at a few old games and say what was good about them at the time, and why someone might want to look at them now. Sometimes this extra layer of justification is needed, just to get past the surface.


Many of the earliest games for the Electron were ports of arcade games and the Acornsoft versions, while not “arcade perfect” were reasonable approximations to the originals. Although very similar to Galaxian, the diving mechanics of the invaders in Arcadians are quite different, swinging wildly from one side of the screen to the other. However, it is still possible to use some of the tactics that are successful in Galaxian when playing this variant. There are some nice touches, too, such as the “rolling” escorts when you shoot a flagship just as it is flipping over. There's a lot going on for a game that is running on a supposedly underpowered machine.

Like many Acornsoft games, Arcadians supports the analogue joysticks via the Plus 1 interface. Early games from Micro Power supported the First Byte joystick interface instead, and later games often dropped joystick support altogether.

Killer Gorilla

Yes, it's Donkey Kong without the licenses or franchises, so that might be a deal-breaker for some people. Apart from that, this is another reasonable approximation to the original arcade version and probably better than many official ports to other home computers. It features the four scenes from the original game, modifying the first level each time the Killer Gorilla is defeated and otherwise making the game more difficult.

The kinds of scenery your character encounters is surprisingly varied, from regular platforms and ladders to conveyor belts and lifts. I'm always intrigued by early games like this one that implement so many different behaviours in what would otherwise be a simple ladders and level game, especially given that the screen memory takes up 20K of the 32K total RAM in the machine, leaving less than 12K for code and data. In fact, the game is around 9K in size.

Magic Mushrooms

While Arcadians ran in the high performance, 4 colour MODE 5, other early Acornsoft titles often managed to squeeze good performance out of the slower 8 colour MODE 2. Magic Mushrooms uses the redundant logical colours that were mostly used for flashing effects to animate otherwise static elements of this action/puzzle platformer. While certain levels require pixel-perfect jumps and others need to be solved like a maze before you can really attempt to complete them, gameplay is otherwise very fluid.

Murphy, the main character, loses a life if he falls too far or runs into a monster – mechanics that I'm sure frustrate modern players – but the game is consistent and fair. It introduces the player to new elements as they progress through the levels, meaning that the idea of a tutorial is redundant. The game also included a level editor and let players practice levels in advance; the sort of feature sadly lacking from later games which treated players as adversaries, locking them out of most of the content they had paid for.

Free Fall

The rotation of a space station causes forces that influence the character's motion in a way that appears counter-intuitive from the player's frame of reference. Free Fall is the sort of game that turns off casual players, especially since it requires the player to master four keys to punch and kick, three keys for thrusting around the playing area, and another to grab bombs as they float past. Often it seems that success is more a matter of chance than due to any skill. However, it does seem to reward persistence, and it's often better to play strategically, holding on to the wall while the alien invaders blow themselves up.

The more you play this, the more you appreciate the details: the rotating sprites, physics, particle effects; the fact that the aliens also seem to behave intelligently, or at least aggressively, and can also pick up and throw bombs. The author jokingly refers to the game as a beat-em-up but it is more of a survival horror game in some ways.


A later version of the more colourful BBC Micro game, the Electron version of Frak! tends to be overlooked due to its monochrome graphics, which is a shame because the lower memory requirements of MODE 4 freed up the space to include an additional 6 levels and a level editor! The nature of the game is also slightly different to the BBC version, being a bit quicker since it doesn't feature smooth scrolling, only jump-scrolling when you approach the edge of the screen.

Frak! is interesting as a platform game from this era because it features very accurate collision detection – possibly even with pixel-perfect accuracy. As an Electron game it stands out because it is packed full of features that allow you to customise the game. Limitations of the hardware are sidestepped by having gameplay that don't require too many moving objects, though there can still be quite a few balloons and daggers to watch out for as you position Trogg, the main character, so that he can hit the monsters with his yo-yo! When the time runs out, night falls, which changes the gameplay so that only stationary enemies can be hit. It is still possible to complete levels but being unable to hit the projectiles aimed at you makes it much harder in places.


Citadel is a nicely polished arcade adventure that set the standard for Acorn machines for some time after its release. The Electron version features bands of data at the top and bottom of the screen that the BBC version is able to blank out thanks to its more capable graphics hardware, but these don't detract too much from the overall experience. The idea of using screen memory to store otherwise non-visual data may not have been new when Citadel was released but it was quite daring of the author to use this technique and risk a negative reaction from a paying audience.

Other machines may have had plenty of platforming adventures like this but not many were as colourful as Citadel, and I doubt many fit together quite as coherently as Citadel does. The puzzles are fairly straightforward, the individual screens can be difficult but fair and there are few, if any, places where the character can be repeatedly drained of their energy until they die. This game was also the first I can remember on the Electron that used the mechanic where the player's character is returned to a safe location when hurt instead of just letting them continue to take damage or repeatedly lose lives.

There is also a fair amount of almost-unique scenery – not just wall tiles – giving the game an interesting architectural style, and quite a few secrets to find.


Four player dungeon exploration using a split screen instead of a single scrolling view that the Electron would have been ill-equipped to do. While other machines got hit-and-miss ports of Atari's Gauntlet, the Acorn machines got this game instead. On balance, I think we got a better deal: Dunjunz drops the niceties of the arcade experience and focuses on dungeon exploration, allowing each of the characters to explore independently and tackle different parts of the dungeon at the same time.

Despite only having levels of 32 by 48 tiles the way each player's viewport only shows rooms of 8 by 8 tiles at once, combined with the way that walls are packed into the available space, means that levels seem larger than they really are. The player's viewports always show what's in the same room as their characters so, when two characters are in the same room, both viewports show the same thing. This can be confusing for a moment or two! Each level is loaded from cassette, which could have been tedious, but you tended to need a rest between levels anyway.

Since the game wasn't an arcade conversion, there was no need to keep the pay-for-more-health mechanic. When a character dies, the others can resurrect them immediately with a crucifix, or they can escape to the next level where all dead characters will be restored with default (i.e. poor) attributes. It's a different overall experience to playing Gauntlet, which is surprising given that Gauntlet was presumably the inspiration for the game.

Just the Beginning

These games date from 1983 to 1987 during which time players' expectations changed and the style of games available evolved both to meet them and shape them. Many of the early games were quite small both in terms of memory used and the number of files they loaded. So, for example, Killer Gorilla had a simple loader which ran a small second program containing some of the game sprites, and this then ran the main game executable; in total less than 12K. Contrast this with Dunjunz which features 25 levels, each nearly 700 bytes in size, in addition to 19K or so of game code, making a total of over 36K before we even count other programs needed to load the game.

Clearly fitting some of these games into one or two 16K ROMs will be a challenge. The surprise is that Citadel, a game which squeezed into the Electron's limited memory, fits into less than 24K of storage space. Not long after it was released other games would stretch storage requirements even further and many would take the same approach as Dunjunz, requiring players to load parts of the game as they were needed.

Category: Retro

Copyright © 2016 David Boddie
Published: 2016-10-15 23:18:42 UTC
Last updated: 2016-10-22 00:51:55 UTC

This document is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.