When I had a originally had a Spectrum back in the mid-eighties, budget games were a Godsend.
With most full price games retailing at between £7.95 and a tenner, you could buy three, four or maybe even five budget games for the same price. Extreme caution was required though; sensible research through one of the dedicated magazines was a must, as the standard of budget games varied wildly.
The biggest and most famous publisher was of course Mastertronic and their games epitomised the fluctuating level of quality that these cheap thrills offered. Close behind them was Firebird’s Silver label with relative latecomers Codemasters giving the original budget market a much-needed jolt in the arm.
Bringing up the rear were Atlantis Software, Alternative, Players and Derek Brewster’s Zeppelin label.
The latter two were late Eighties/early 90’s creations when the Spectrum was coming to the end of its life and full price software was fast becoming something of a rarity and budget games dominated sales.
Many other budget labels dedicated their output to re-releases, usually from their parent company (for example, US Gold’s Kixx and Ocean's The Hit Squad), and I have decided to exclude these games from my list; the ten budget games below, my favourites, are all genuine 100% original budget releases and not games previously available at a higher price. Bring on the memories!
Chronos wasn’t particularly well reviewed at the time, with most magazines offering indifference towards what they thought was a run-of-the-mill shoot ‘em up. I liked the look of it though, and considering it was only £1.99, took a punt and found Chronos to be an addictive little shooter with nice graphics, a cool title tune and a high score table that made funny comments if you put rude words in.
Always a plus for any fourteen-year-old boy.
Ah, our old friend Booty - what a superb game. A simple platformer at heart, Booty gave the genre a subtle twist by introducing the concept of finding keys for locked doors that led off to different levels, giving the player a sense of freedom, even if this wasn’t strictly the case. It had it’s flaws (it was tremendously difficult, and the moving platforms were a bit of a nightmare), yet although I never came close to completing Booty, I just loved exploring all the different areas.
8.Agent X (Mastertronic).
Agent X was a humorous multi-stage action game that had an unusual weakness for a Speccy game: it was too easy!
The first stage saw the agent in his super spy car, dodging traffic and deadly traps in an isometric perspective. Next, X had to work his way through the bad guy’s lair, battling enemy robots before finally facing his nemesis in a first person shooting section. Agent X incorporated excellent graphics and sound to accompany it’s sardonic spy and was a polished and fun adventure.
7.180 (Mastertronic Added Dimension).
Darts, the famous pub “sport” has had a few adaptations on the Spectrum, but none have come close to MAD’s 180. Its floating hand concept worked extremely well, and although the game became much easier once this was mastered, the supreme skill of the final opponent, Jammy Jim, ensured victory was never a foregone conclusion. A smattering of pub humour only helped this playable and compelling simulation.
Pippo, Mastertronic claimed boldly on the cassette inlay card, contains synthesised speech. Whilst this aspect of Pippo was supremely disappointing (it’s basically the main character screaming aarrrgeeeeaaarrrgeeeaarrrgeeeaarrgg whenever he loses a life…), the game was a delightful one, and a bit of a surprise considering Mastertronic’s recent record.
Pippo himself was a strange pear-shaped creature that bounced up and down a lot. He was situated on a coloured board made up of squares; his job was to bounce on each square and turn it a different colour. When all the squares had been changed, the level was complete and a new board appeared. Of course it wasn’t always that easy; there were a selection of enemies that chased after Pippo or changed the squares back to their original colour. Later levels also involved Pippo having to step on a square more than once until it changed to the desired colour. Surprisingly addictive and certainly very playable.
5.Knight Tyme (Mastertronic Added Dimension).
Another hit for MAD, and the third in David Jones’ brilliant Magic Knight series of games. This adventure saw him stranded on a spaceship and lost in time, with the now familiar windimation system and a series of strange objects littered around to help him. Humour was prevalent throughout and although some of the puzzles were a touch on the obscure side, Knight Tyme was an entertaining and amusing experience, and certainly my favourite from this series of games. Slightly more expensive at £2.99 (but still superb value for money), it also had the honour of being the first 128k only game, although a 48k version was subsequently released.
Bulldog, a newly-formed Mastertronic label, celebrated their inception with this excellent first release. Feud saw two wizardly brothers battling against other by collecting herbs from the village and garden in a flip-screen maze, before returning to their cauldrons and concocting deadly spells with which to fling at each other. The game offered some lovely graphics and animation plus the gameplay, whilst straightforward, was terrific. The only it thing it lacked was a two-player mode which would have been pretty fantastic.
Codemasters were the most well known for two properties: their “simulator” series of games and the Darling Brothers’ ovular Dizzy franchise. Whilst at heart a simple platformer, with puzzles that had been seen before with such classics as the Wally Week games, Dizzy had smart graphics and smooth gameplay that ensured it quickly became a fan favourite, helped of course by the £1.99 price.
Taking it’s key from the old arcade game Gravitar, Thrust was an early release in Firebird’s Silver range, a conversion of the C64 game and retailed at a pocket money-friendly £1.99. The graphics were often simple lines and your mission was to rescue a number of pods both over and underground. Gun emplacements and ever-decreasing fuel were a problem, with a weapon of your own and large oblong fuel tanks the respective solutions.
At the time Thrust was such an obvious concept for a Speccy game everyone seemed a bit surprised that we hadn’t already seen something similar. In fact we had, with Mastertronic’s Apollo 11 and 1985: The Day After released a couple of years earlier. Yet Thrust was eminently more playable than those two poor offerings and highly addictive – if a little frustrating at times.
1.Rebelstar 2 (Silverbird).
I realise this may be a slightly controversial choice, given that the original is a classic as well and as a two-player game probably edges it’s sequel. However, I mainly played Speccy games on my own (aaaahh!) so I’m judging on the basis of single player experience, and in this department Rebelstar 2 trounces the first game simply because it offers a considerably stiffer challenge.
The concept of Rebelstar was first aired with Red Shift’s Rebelstar Raiders; however it wasn’t until Rebelstar, when author Julian Gollop refined the gameplay - smoothing out some of the frustrating elements of Raiders like simplifying the controls and troop deployment - that the series of tactical combat games really gripped the Spectrum scene.
Rebelstar saw the player in charge of a unit of soldiers dumped outside a moonbase with a mission to destroy a well-guarded supercomputer. It was a superb game, but unfortunately, in one player mode was a little too easy to beat (even on the highest level) using a famous and almost guaranteed winning tactic. Two player mode improved this, but Gollop took on board these criticisms for Rebelstar 2 and concocted a steeper challenge with a strict turn limit, increased character fatigue, some vicious enemy weapons and reinforcements for the aliens.
Your team was dropped on an alien planet, this time with the dubious mission of stealing some of the alien eggs stored in their home on the right hand side of the map.
The aliens (bearing more than a passing resemblance to H.R. Giger’s creations from the Alien films) had a squad of soldiers out to stop you, as well as a massive Queen who had a nasty acid spit that could kill a soldier in one shot. The player was awarded points for each soldier that escaped and each egg that was pinched; the aliens for killing the soldiers or preventing them from escaping when the number of turns expired.
Rebelstar 2 was totally gripping. Ducking in and out of cover as your team picked their way across the alien planet was an enthralling, if challenging task. It didn’t divert much from the original template (turn based combat, action points etc) but did present a considerable test to even experienced gamers. A genuine classic with hours and hours of gameplay…all for £1.99!
Special mentions go out to: Universal Hero, Finders Keepers, Spellbound, Future Games, Bosconian ’87, Jason’s Gem (Mastertronic), I, Ball, I,Ball 2, Olli and Lissa (Firebird), BMX Simulator, Super Robin Hood, Professional Ski Simulator (Codemasters) and Joe Blade (Players).