The Hobbit (ZX Spectrum, 1982), and how a kid became a geek

Note: this post is expanded from one in my old blog, The Games of My Life.

Back in time, to a 1982 game I played in 1983, on my first computer (well, technically my father’s), a 48K ZX Spectrum: Melbourne House’s The Hobbit.

The Hobbit -- starting location
The Hobbit -- starting location

This game… well, it has a story, and I’m not talking about the “Bilbo, Gandalf and a bunch of dwarves go on a quest to retrieve a dragon’s treasure” one. I mean a personal story. I guess I could say that this game changed my life — as much as anything can change one’s life, I guess.

So you’ll have to bear with me — or, of course, skip this post. Because this one is as much about “why I’m the way I am” as it is about the game — perhaps more. And it’s a long one. :) More after the break…

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Blagtron: The Resurrection!

Sometimes, pretty odd things happen. Yesterday evening, after I wrote the Quest for the Rings post, I kept thinking about old games for a time, and after a while I recalled a game I wrote very, very long ago (think early 90s), that I used to play with two separate groups of friends, and that we enjoyed a lot at the time. I then wondered: could I find it somewhere? No, finding it here would be a lost cause: the game was written on a 486, and later on a Pentium, and those machines of mine are long gone. At the time, there was no Internet to speak of, much less the concept of online backups, so there wasn’t any hope there. But I did remember uploading it to in the late 90s…

Its name was “Blagtron“. Yup, I was young, back then. :)

Well, some quick googling, and I found it. :) The version that still exists, and that I include (with some tweaks) later in this post, is the latest one, in English (I seem to have missed a couple of phrases when translating it from my native Portuguese, but those are minor — and, anyway, there’s very little text in the game). The question then was whether it would work in DOSBox. Amazingly, it did — though, to enable sound, I had to replace an included file with one from an old version of Sound Blaster 16 drivers; this, fortunately, had been a problem for other DOSBox users before, and therefore the solution was easy to find. A few more minor changes (unfortunately, I don’t have the source anymore, as I said, so major alterations aren’t viable), and here it is: a repackaging of Blagtron 3.0.1, which works without problems on a default DOSBox installation.

Blagtron, running under DOSBox, in 640x350 EGA mode. Modes up to 800x600 are available -- not to look "better", but to extend the play area.

As you can see from the screenshot above, Blagtron is a “Tron-like” game — hence the name. You can’t ever stop, just turn around, and you leave behind a trail wherever you go. Touching a trail left behind by any player — including yourself — means instant death, and the goal is to be the last one standing. The main feature distinguishing it from other “Tron-likes” is the 4-player support — yes, all on the same keyboard –, though you can play a 2- or 3-player game, or even practice on your own. There’s also a 2 vs 2 team option.

I remember this game being quite fun and addictive to play in groups — though it’s the kind of game that can bring out the worst in people, when they lose… you have been warned. :) The only caveats to playing it now, under DOSBox, is that the automatic speed detection may need some manual adjustment, and you must close DOSBox to exit the game — originally, you needed to use CTRL-Break, but that doesn’t seem to work under DOSBox. Again, I’d fix it now if I had the source, but that is not the case. For details, (including how to run it in DOSBox, though if you’re familiar with it you won’t have any problem) read the included README.TXT file.

Well, here is the game itself, a “massive” 52KB zip file:

Again, please take a look at the readme file for instructions (tip: run SETUP.EXE before running the game itself, and the game’s speed may then need manual adjustment; all of this is explained in the aforementioned file) and solutions to possible problems. I appreciate praise comments and constructive criticism (bug fixes, unfortunately, can’t be dealt with until I eventually program a new version of Blagtron from scratch, in a modern language ((perhaps Java, so I can release a multi-platform version, and eventually adapt it to Android phones and tablets?))). For the history behind this game, read on…

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TGomL: Chaos (ZX Spectrum, 1985)

Note: this post is expanded from one in my old blog, The Games of My Life.

Chaos (title screen)Back to the ol’ Speccy for a 1985 game I and my friends and brother played well into the late 90s: Chaos (also known as Chaos: The Battle of Wizards on the menu screen). Designed and programmed by Julian Gollop, who would go on to design such classics (not that Chaos isn’t one itself) as Laser Squad and UFO: Enemy Unknown (known outside Europe as X-Com: UFO Defense), this was indeed my first contact with a Gollop-designed game, though I didn’t know any of that at the time… after all, I was only an 11-year-old kid.

Incidentally, I purchased Chaos without having any idea of what it was like, which was common at the time — all games sold in Portugal were cheap pirated copies (such a situation wouldn’t change until the mid-nineties), and often they didn’t even have a photocopy of the original cover; they simply used generic ones, usually made by that particular store, and with just the game’s name on it. And at the time I didn’t even realize there was such a thing as computer magazines; it would still be a year until I bought my first copy of Your Sinclair (issue 3!). So, again, I had no idea what I was buying, and I have no idea or recollection of what made me curious about a cassette with the word “Chaos” on the cover (though I still remember where I bought it — “Triudus”, in the Fonte Nova shopping center. Yup, the things I fill my brain with…)

Chaos (gameplay)

Anyway, Chaos. By looking at screenshots such as the one next to this paragraph, it appears stupidly basic; by watching someone play without explaining to you what he or she is doing, it seems insanely complex. The reality?

The premise is simple: 2-8 wizards (each one played by a human or by the computer) trying to kill each other, using a variety of spells, including controllable summoned creatures, in a relatively small map (a single screen). (sounds almost like Magic: the Gathering, only without the cards…)

The options, however, are many. Should I cast this Giant when the spell has only a 20% chance of working? Should I cast it as an illusion, which works 100% of the time, but can easily be dispelled? Should I try to create easier, weaker Law creatures so that the Giant (a Law spell) is easier to cast later? Or should I go towards Chaos instead so I can eventually cast a Red Dragon? Is that guy going to attack me, or can I stay concentrated on killing that other guy? Can a Magic Bolt kill him next turn, or should I save it for when I’m threatened? He’s attacking with undead creatures, which can only be attacked by magic weapons or other undead, and I have none… should I cast a Magic Sword and fight them physically with my wizard? Trap them with Fire or a Gooey Blob? Create a Horse or a Pegasus, mount it, and get out of here? Create Magic Trees so I can get new spells? Is that Ogre he just cast an illusion?

And all of that in 48 K. Yes, 49152 bytes. I must have played many hundreds of Chaos games in my life, almost all of them on a real ZX Spectrum, in the 80s and 90s. And even today the game is a lot of fun, especially with a group of friends.

Oh, and the snake on the loading screen looked great. :) I love how they circumvent the Speccy’s attribute clash and give the illusion of shading just by making some 8×8-pixel squares “bright” (the Spectrum could only have two colors each 8×8 square, thus the color clash, and the square could also have the “bright” bit optionally enabled, which is what they do here).

As with most Spectrum games, you can get it (legally!) from World of Spectrum, in this case here.

Bad Games I Played a Lot #1: Kung Fu Master (ZX Spectrum)

Welcome to the first part of this blog’s first series, Bad Games I Played a Lot. As the name suggests, I talk about games that, in hindsight, were pretty bad even for their time (this is important), but that, for some reason, I played for a long time.

And the first one is… Kung Fu Master, on the ZX Spectrum.

Now, if you were a gamer 25-30 years ago, and/or you care about retro gaming, you probably remember Kung Fu Master perfectly, or at least know what I’m talking about. Kung Fu Master. Yes, this one:

Kung Fu Master (arcade)I have to admit this game was pretty special to me in my teen years. Why is that? Because, in Portugal, at the time, arcades were strictly for “16 and older”, and I was 12, and later 13, at the time. I was very rarely allowed to even enter the premises, and never actually allowed to play… but, for some reason, I found this game strangely appealing, and would stand — sometimes outside the arcade — watching other people (older teens) play it. To be able to some day play it myself was a distant dream… (more after the break)

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The Sinclair ZX81: 30 years old today

Sinclair ZX81Yes, according to Wikipedia, Sinclair Research’s second most successful computer (if we don’t count revisions of the ZX Spectrum as separate “computers”) was released on March 5, 1981. Exactly 30 years ago today.

For more about the ZX81 and the history behind it, I direct you to this excellent post, Sinclair ZX81: 30 years old tomorrow (written, as you can guess, yesterday). Spot the ad for the 16KB “massive add-on memory” expansion. :) And now for some more personal history after the break…

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