There are many famous games from the early era of Spectrum gaming. However, one title not quite as fondly remembered despite excellent reviews and an original concept that has barely been copied since, is Splat!, a multi-scrolling maze game and the first release from a new software house called Incentive...
Ian Andrew may be a name that some of you will recognise as the founder of the 8 and 16-bit software label Incentive. Famous for giving the world the Graphic Adventure Creator (GAC) and the technically astounding Freescape games, their debut game was actually programmed by Ian himself with assistance from colleague Ian Morgan. Splat!, however, wasn’t Ian Andrew's first game; that was the strategy title Mined Out and the royalties he received from its publisher Quicksilva eclipsed his-then full time salary. Realising this, Ian decided to release Splat! under a new label rather than sell it to an existing software house, as he explains: “That way I would earn the royalties from sales and also make the publisher margin on top - Incentive was born.” A brave move perhaps, but with the vibrant Spectrum gaming scene in full flow, a logical one.
As the game that started it all for Incentive, how did Ian come up with the brilliantly original concept behind their launch title? “The idea came from my love of puzzles and mazes. Splat! is essentially a maze game with a twist: the randomly moving box that travels within it.” To explain a little further: in the game, the player controls Zippy, a character who must constantly move within the randomly scrolling maze in order to avoid getting “splatted” against the one of its four walls. There are hedges, rivers and other hazards that hamper Zippy’s movements, with the ultimate aim simply, survival. At the time it was certainly different to the proliferation of shoot ‘em ups and platform games doing the rounds on the Spectrum - was this a deliberate ploy? “Yes,” affirms Ian, “I enjoyed looking around to see what other types of games were out there, and I then just tried to do something different from everybody else. I had always liked designing mazes and making wooden pinball machines with marbles and nails when I was younger, so it developed from there.”
The nature of Splat! - the multi-directional scrolling maze hounds you constantly – gave it a fresh challenge each time. This was another clever stratagem from the nascent software house: “I wanted to make the gameplay different each time you played,” Ian notes, “which in effect extended the playtime Spectrum owners would get from the game, and it seemed a logical way of doing it.” And is the random maze genuinely random? “Oh yes – well, as far as it used the Spectrum’s BASIC randomize function and a random call on the machine code routine. It took a while for me to be happy with the route and it involved lots of playtesting and tweaking.” says Ian, and it worked quite cleverly as well. “The routine would make the maze head off in an arbitrary direction for a random length of time designed to avoid it scrolling too far. It also had a point where it made a bee-line for an edge so that all parts of the maze would have a high chance of being seen by the player. Eventually, it would work out where it was and head back to the end point, which was also conveniently the starting point for the next level!” With Ian never having learned machine code, this part was written by Ian Morgan who ensured the play area moved at a fast pace whilst Ian concentrated on the game design and basic programming. “I think that worked pretty well but the limitations of the ZX Spectrum’s screen design – the game elements had to be made up of character size blocks and each of these could only contain two colours – was restrictive. I don’t think this influenced the gameplay too much, though.”
Splat! took around six months to complete and Ian Andrew was very pleased with the results; the title was also commercially very successful for Incentive, giving them the platform for bigger and better things. What does Ian think made it such a success? “I remember thinking back then that I had a game that was special and different and that was also being released at a very good time. But I guess mainly it was its originality, as it wasn’t a clone of an existing Spectrum game or arcade machine. Splat! was also thoroughly playtested: I watched family and friends play it and made tweaks to the gameplay based on these observations. My mother in particular, was very helpful in this respect.”
After its release, Splat! also gained some extremely positive reviews and scores. “That was very important to me,” comments Ian, “I was on such a high when I read the reviews and felt like a popstar at the time. It was the most amazing feeling for a 22 year-old and a huge rush – It’s just a shame I never became quite as big a star as Matthew Smith [of Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy fame]!”
Finally, after all this time, with the basic premise of Splat! still relatively untapped, the notion of a 21st Century update must be on Ian’s mind? “I am thinking about a remake, and may well start working on it soon, so watch my current free games site www.originalgames.com for further updates.” And as for the original? “I’m still very proud of it. Even after the success of several of Incentive’s more well-known titles, I’ve always loved the creation and design aspect of games so much more than the business side. Splat! was the real starting point of my game designing career, so I will always have very fond memories of it.”
What’s in a name?
Ian Andrew named his company from an idea: he wanted each of it’s games to include an extra “incentive” to be bought. With Splat!, this encouragement was in the form of a £500 reward for the highest scorer and this was judged by having “hi-code” generator incorporated into the game, a code that was given to the player upon completing the game which corresponded to their final score. The prize was won by James Tant who admitted in Sinclair User to honing his skills from playing the game five to seven hours a night, non-stop for three months - some serious splatting! Another added bonus were the free “Splat Mats” (basically, Splat!-style beer mats) that were available to anyone who took their time to send an SAE to Incentive headquarters…
Splat! was also notable for featuring one of the earliest examples of synthesised speech on the Spectrum. Upon completing each level, the player was rewarded with the excited exclamation “Yippee!” from the game – and it indirectly caused quite a headache when the game was set to be released. Recalls Ian: “The master tapes were all ready for production and we noticed that the “Yippee” word that appeared on the screen was spelt incorrectly. I was tempted to go to production anyway but was persuaded to redo all the tapes. Not a very pleasant time!”
Splat! only made it onto the Commodore 64 (which was also published by Incentive) and latterly, the doomed Sam Coupe. Ian contributed little to the actual programming but was on hand, however, to make sure the conversions retained the spirit of the original whilst taking into account the relative strengths of the computers it was being ported to.
What they said at the time
Splat! scored an impressive 81.5% in the very first issue of legendary Spectrum magazine Crash. Comments from the (nameless) reviewers included “the graphics are very smooth”, “It keeps you on your toes”, and “this is a game with growing appeal…which guarantees its addictivity.” C&VG lavished even more praise on the Incentive game, with the reviewer calling it “one of the most addictive games I’ve ever played.” and a good set of scores echoed this sentiment. Personal Computer Games reserved particular adulation for the fact you could redefine the keys (those were the days!), but fortunately loved the game as well, boasting if “Horace hooked you, Splat! will amaze you.” A Horace-beater? No wonder Ian was so happy with the reviews…
A Winner Speaks - James Tant, winner of the Splat! high score competition
“It was the mid-80s: I had left school, there were no jobs and basically I had little better to do than play Spectrum games all day,” reminisces James Tant, winner of the inaugural Incentive competition for his high score on Splat! “I had to go to their office in Reading to play the game and prove my score and actually exceeded it.” But did it change his life? “No, not really,” he concludes “although I did use the money to help pay for my first car - an MG Maestro!”
This feature is adapted from the article that appeared in Retro Gamer issue 98. Thanks for reading!