The phone is ringing. “Got a little job for you, Minson. Like you to do an end of the year article. Make it double length. Plenty of time. Don’t need it till the end of this week.”
Goddam, they want me to wind up ’86, and because magazines don’t just appear out of nowhere, I’m still in the process of struggling with November. Okay, then — let’s tackle that before Hunter S gets serious and actually talks about (wouldja believe?) computing.
It was about this time last year that I got chucked out of the Savoy Hotel in London. The occasion was the National Computer Games Championship. Well, the Championship was here again, but the Savoy had refrained from potting its spruce until after the event, so no Xmas pin-up piccie, I’m afraid.
No — this time my problems arose from the labyrinthine nature of the Savoy’s basement. As I wandered I began to experience that feeling of despair, well known to adventurers who make the mistake of straying into the ‘dark forest by the roadside’ then find that ‘Go North’ no longer helps.
When I finally did find my way out of the maze, it was into a blaze of light. Television cameras were rolling as Cuddly Dave Carlos, his beard specially trimmed for the occasion, announced the contestants. The effects was most amusing — rather like Terry Waite, to whom Dave bears more than a passing resemblance, compereing Miss World.
Talking of Miss World, the lovely Janice Gallagher dragged me out of the spotlights, explained that they didn’t want to do an in-depth interview with me quite at that moment, and propelled me towards the bar. She also told me that the game that was being used in the final was Cop Out, the brand new one from Mikro-Gen, who celebrated their fifth birthday while I was doing in depth research in Sweden (see the forthcoming article in LM — if I ever get it together).
This omnipotent organ had neglected to enter a contestant, so who won was almost incidental to the extremely well-stocked bar. Almost, I say, because though the victor was an Amstrad person (yawn), he was the official POPULAR COMPUTING WEEKLY candidate. Now, as the sharp eyed amongst you will know, I write for PCW. In fact, they were almost the first computer title to print my reviews, so I have a great sentimental attachment to them.
Better still, the champion David Litherland comes from Horwich, which lies next to Bolton, ’oop north in Lancashire. Bolton just happens to be my home town, and I know the cosmopolitan charms of Horwich too. So to David I say, congratulations... and don’t worry, you too may escape like I did!
Actually, I almost had much more to say to him, owing to an oversight on somebody’s part. You see, when it looked like The Battling Boltonian was a dead cert, Carlos started searching for a PCW representative... only to find there wasn’t one. Such are the pressures of producing a weekly, they’d planned to roll up at the very last minute!
Chaos reigned. It was even suggested that I should act on behalf of the magazine, but I declined and instead suggested that Carlos should get on the dog and bone immediately. Which he did, summoning the very lovely Christine Erskine herself. She arrived, slightly out of breath, to pat their man’s back.
Competition of a different sort the following day. Mike Baxter, had invited the press, magazine advertising staff and even his Auntie down to that almost trendy cross between a restaurant and a television showroom; The Video Cafe.
The excuse for this bash was the Konix Speedking joystick, an object which resembles nothing more than that most tuneless musical instrument, the ocarina. For some reason, Konix wanted the gentlemen of the press to try and destroy two of these things.
Now there is only one way of killing a joystick for many people, and that’s that classic of wrist action, Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. And as an added incentive, whoever scored highest in this test of waggling could win a weekend for two in Amsterdam.
The whole lunch was most revealing. Everybody wanted to go to Amsterdam, of course. But when it came to coming forward — well, everyone seemed a little behind. Could it be that all these editors and star writers were shy of their games playing prowess?
The atmosphere was like a superpowers summit. Everyone was trying to do deals with each other. “Look, I’m brilliant at this game, but I won’t compete so that you can win but only if you promise to take me with you.”
But not for me such cowardly tactics. I’d been in training for this event for weeks. I’d been out jogging (once). I’d done press ups (four of them). I’d taken every type of anabolic steroid I could find in Boots. And... unfortunately, I’d neglected to play the game.
Yes — as I sat at a sweaty Spectrum I realised that I’d never played Decathlon before! I’d socked it to Supertest, I’d sweltered in the Summer Games; I’d waggled my stick all Winter... but I’d dumped out on Decathlon. This did mean that while I was okay on the tests of speed, like the sprint, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to the jumping events.
My performance was hardly Chariots of Fire. More Skateboards of Hot Air really. But it still placed me about fourth. Now, this all raises a question of journalistic ethics. Just how much do I tell you about the performances of my fellow hacks? I fear I must be discreet.
There was one journo who made a feeble excuse about having lots of work to do back at the office, just before his turn. No names, mind — just let’s say he was the ‘eminence gris’ of another Sinclair publication. Probably had to get back to await the arrival of the Loki and check the photofiles for more pictures of NEWSFIELD Reviewer-Champion Ben Stone at the ZX Microfair to print in his organ!
And what about the editor who managed to come last? Perhaps he would be happier editing SMASH HITS after all! The weekend in Amsterdam went to the YOUR COMMODORE competitor though. Obviously a man who gives his right wrist lots of exercise.
The real winners were the joysticks. Not only did they stand up to the action, their easy switching meant that it was possible to go for that Coe burst of speed and maintain it. Driven on to greater things, Konix is at this very moment inventing a robot joystick destructor, and is inviting you, the public, to guess how long a Speedking will endure this bionic bashing.
If you’d like to win £100, whizz off your estimate to Konix, and mark it Daley Thompson’s Decathlon Test. Don’t forget your name and address and do mention that Hunter S sent you. You’d better be quick off the mark, because the big event is happening in early January.
That brings us up to date, apart from one thing... it seems that Micronet’s Slasher has done a far better job digging up the dirt on Minson than the late, unlamented Shadow ever did in ZZAP!
From what I hear, he got the facts right, including how I used to howl with an obscenely named punk band who made the Mary Chain sound sophisticated, and (worse still) my involvement with an Amstrad word processor magazine!
Well done then, Slasher, I bear you no grudge at all, and certainly wouldn’t dream of being the Gremlin that blew your anonimity, now that you’re a Bourne-again gossip!
So that’s the way the year will end, if not with a BANG (RIP), certainly not with a whimper either. There’s just the round up of Christmas parties to come, and don’t worry — I’ll be there, drinking Bloody Marys and getting into dangerous craziness.
But before I get too out of my head on every heinous substance known to mankind, I want to try and look back at ’86. No I don’t. CRASH wants me to look back at ’86. I want to look forward into ’87.
1987, we are told, will be the year of the games console revival. Atari is back with the buggers, and Ariolasoft is putting its weight behind Sega’s machine, while the Nintendo contender is also on the way over here. 1987 or ’82?
What does it all mean? For one thing, the division between players and programmer is out in the open, once and for all. There was a great lie about computers: “But if I don’t have one, how can I learn to program, and if I don’t learn to program, I won’t be prepared for the (gasp!) Silicon Revolution.”
Now I, for one, have never been convinced that learning where LOAD and two quotation marks lie on a keyboard counts as programming. But it’s enough for all the people who use these three keystrokes to unleash the fearsome power of shoot em ups and adventures.
The plain fact is that many people don’t give a twopenny damn about how structured their BASIC is. And this is what the console manufacturers and distributors are counting on. Gamers just want to have fun.
Ahh, but I can hear the cries and shouts of the hacking brigade already as their champion, the charming Hannah Smith, takes up the challenge. “But what about the cheat pokes, which are amongst the most popular features in the magazines?”
Typing in twenty lines of code from a magazine is as much like programming as copying twenty lines of Romeo and Juliet is to becoming Shakespeare. It’s only a minority who actually analyse the code for the benefit of others. The consoles, with their vast RAMs and instant loading are set to kill the games computers with their limited sound and colour, like the Spectrum. Or are they?
1987 is supposed to be all explosions and wrecked joysticks, even if there are no more infinite lives. But by losing that minority of freaks, weirdos and eggheads who actually like to sit up all night, up to their elbows in code, the console manufacturers are also losing the people who have made the Spectrum what it is today.
Just take a look at a 1983 Spectrum game and you’ll see what I mean. Sure, it will still be playable — addictive for a while, even — but comparable with today’s programs? Do leave it out!
The history of Spectrum programming is littered with milestones; programs that did the impossible with the humble machine. Lords of Midnight with its apparently infinite landscape. Starstrike 3D with its superfast vector graphics. Even utilities like The Quill, which turned everyone into adventure writers. Sure, you can buy these titles on other machines. But they originated on the Spectrum, and there’s a sense of excitement about the machine — far more than any other micro. Back bedroom boffins sweated into the early hours to learn code, just so they could bring you Manic Miner or Arcadia. They pounded away at rubbery keys to push the machine forward.
But where are the consoles’ keyboards? If they become available at all, it will be as optional extras, at some unspecified later date. As to saving your efforts to tape — no way! This is the age of the EPROM blower. Even if you can afford that little extra, you could well find that you can’t sell your programs direct. First you’ll have to get a licence from the distributor. Who will in turn have to get the, ‘Ha-so! Ho-key!’ from Japan.
The consoles symbolise one of the things that is wrong with this world; the big boys taking over. But the big boys don’t necessarily know what you, the individual, want. At the moment they think it’s shoot ’em ups and driving games and platforms and ladders. Noisy shoot ’em ups. Fast driving games. Colourful platforms and ladders. But if you’ve already cut the teeth on the Spectrum, you’ll have been through that stage already.
If you want these games, they’re already available, a lot cheaper than they’ll be in cartridge form. And when you get tired of zapping the BEMs, your Spectrum lets you move onto something a little more sophisticated. They say that there are only seven plots in the whole of literature. That means there are about five in gaming. And the consoles want to restrict you to three of them!
Consoles won’t take over but big things seem set to happen in the world of computing. In the last couple of months rumours have abounded concerning the impending collapse of certain software companies. We are not just talking little league here, but about big boys. Companies which own several labels. Companies which used to top the charts. Companies who have been around since the beginning.
I don’t intend to name names. The software industry is always full of rumours, so it wouldn’t be fair. And there are the laws of libel to consider. But I wouldn’t be in the least surprised that in three or four months time things looked very different.
It’s another example of businesses getting too big; out of hand and out of touch. A big company has to put out products to convince the punters that it’s big. Unluckily it then screws itself by not giving the programmers time to develop games. It backs movies in expensive tie-ins... only to have the game appear nine months after the movie has flopped.
The year has produced some great games, but the weeks leading up to Christmas have produced some turkeys too! There have been games which have attempted to do the impossible, sadly proving that yes, the Spectrum does have its limits.
I don’t know what will happen in ’87 but I’m rather worried. The Spectrum is an old machine. We can only push it so far in any one direction before it shows its age. Perhaps the time has come for the bedroom boffins to get back to work, free from the pressures of tie-ins, and for more time to be spent on original game design. Because if this industry does contract, it means me, and many more like me, may have to buy their own liquid lunches!
A Merry Christmas and let’s hope it’s a Happy New Year too.