Frontline with Philippa Irving

Philippa Irving


I’m hanging over the precipice of exams, but I’ve found time to start writing the ZZAP! wargames section too (it’s called MANOEUVRES).

Even when the Commodore looked like it was going to outstrip the Spectrum, I bought a Spectrum because I preferred the software. On the whole I still do, though there’s been a decline recently in the overall content standard of software.

There’s a type of Spectrum software which is artistically superior to most things written and conceived for the Commodore. Or can be, or was.

The Commodore is a superior machine, yet most innovative and exciting games were developed on the Spectrum. It’s partly because the Spectrum was there first, and absorbed the first enthusiasm and creativity; and because the very limitations of the hardware impose restrictions on the programmer and force him to work harder at other, ‘deeper’ elements of the game.

The Commodore is like a big budget for a glossy science-fiction film, and produces games like the Star Wars masterpieces. The programmer, free to spend millions on spectacular graphics and special effects, concentrates on making a surface impression. Star Wars satisfies on that level; it was fascinating to see REAL spaceships and space stations at last, just as fractal graphics are amazing to behold and thrilling to move around inside.

But the Star Wars series has a simple, stylised plot which doesn’t matter because the films are a vehicle for the effects; and this is the case with a lot of Commodore games. Eidolon is beautiful, but the game evaporates to the touch.

The Spectrum is like a low budget for a TV series. Often it’ll produce dry, tatty programs, but just as often the very lack of resources will inspire talented programmers to compensate and produce a game which satisfies the imagination. And a Spectrum game can have a visual restraint and artistry preferable to the Commodore look. Drab low-budget sets can build up a claustrophobic atmosphere on TV; the monochromatic wash of classic 3-D games like Alien 8 and the elegant pencil-drawing animation of the Dun Darach games pleases me more than flying sprites and multicoloured explosions. Despite the inevitable tackiness when the Spectrum programmers try to pretend it’s an arcade machine, there can be spectacular moments of visual imagery.

But this inventiveness, innovation and artistry have only given wargamers the Midnight games and R T Smith. And everything I’ve said refers to cassette-based games. Commodore disk-based games are in a different class, and I’d be glad to see some of the Spectrum spirit exercised on a larger database!