I was saddened to hear that Ben Daglish passed away last Monday; I’d only seen him play on a couple of occasions at Back In Time events and we’d met very much in passing at the same time – my own shyness prevented me from taking full advantage of those opportunities – but he, along with people like Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway was behind a significant chunk of the soundtrack from my formative years, composing for games I enjoyed including Krakout, Hades Nebula, Return Of The Mutant Camels and many more on the C64.
Ben also produced a number of demos with his friend and regular collaborator Tony Crowther under the We MUSIC banner – they put out a great cover of Stairway To Heaven amongst others – but there’s one that always stands out for me personally; it’s been known by a couple of names over the years including Space Gladiator but the filename on the version I received as a teenager was 10 Minute Trap. There are two flavours available with the sparser version hidden within the game Trap itself – the cassette inlay features a screenshot with the caption “hi scorers should enter re-arranged MODE” as a hint – as well as being available separately, but a retooled version also exists which added a couple of logos and an upscroller, this was released to promote UK online service Compunet and is the one I’m most familiar with personally.
The demo itself is very much built around the music, which is nearly ten minutes long and truly epic in scale – the burly, sometimes titular Space Gladiator at the bottom left of the screen accompanies parts of the music with his drum and will sometimes practise or just watch the action when not required – and there’s a window looking out on a couple of barren planets where the story unfolds. As the music gets going a flying saucer arrives to beam down a spaceman, leaving him behind to witness what appears to be a pitched interstellar battle with multiple craft flying past, missiles smashing into one of the planets and occasional stroboscopic flashes which are all tied into the soundtrack. I’ve always felt sorry for that spaceman actually, he looks rather lonely stranded there and observing from his solitary platform and waving at the UFOs as they whiz past!
The Compunet version’s scrolling text talks about the various online services available, sometimes punctuating events in the main window as it does so – the phrase “you’re never alone with Compunet” rather ironically appears as the spaceman is dropped off for example – and I’ve always rather liked that integration, the advertising could just have been wedged in with absolutely no regard to the original demo but time and thought obviously went into this. It helps that 10 Minute Trap is already an engaging, unusual demo of course, which is also why I’ll sit down and watch the Compunet version a couple of times a year just because I can… although subsequent viewings will be a little sadder knowing that one of its creators is no longer with us.
One of the things I personally missed out on as a C64 owner in the United Kingdom during the 1980s was online service Compunet – the potential phone bills alone meant I stood no chance of begging my parents for access – but I did at least have a school friend Philip Chan whose family could afford it. Before I got involved in the scene and mail trading, Philip’s modem, a compilation called The Best Of Compunet purchased from the company’s stand at a show in London and the regular section on demos in Zzap! 64 were our only connection to the nascent demo scene of the mid 1980s and, along with an eclectic mix of downloaded productions, Philip also uploaded some of my early “efforts” for others to see.
Future Shock was one of the demos on The Best Of Compunet – I didn’t have a disk drive at the time so was loading from cassette – and stood out as impressive stuff; there was Mat’s multicolour version of the moodily lit Amiga picture doing the rounds at the time in computer magazines and an original soundtrack composed by Demon, all pulled together by Psy The Hero’s code which put a scrolling message in the upper border and a couple of cycling logos in the lower. But there was a little surprise waiting for first time watchers; when Future Shock starts up the little monitor is showing a teensy version of Avril Harrison’s iconic King Tutankhamun picture but, at when certain point in the music is reached, that changes out for a cute little boing ball bouncing around the Amiga’s screen.
Despite taking a pop at the format once in one of those aforementioned uploads I adore the classic Compunet bog standard demo, just look at Koalatro or MD201604 for example and there’s over a dozen other prototypes in my work folders all trying different things with the scroller or picture. A lot of that love originates from watching Future Shock in the mid 1980s and, although there are scores of other great examples of this trope on the C64 such as XESS 1 – Rendezvous by XESS, the Commandos’ Official Warhawk or Transputer Demo – the latter which brings back a few hazy memories of watching Tomorrow’s World as a teenager – and Metal Bar 2 by Borderzone themselves which puts the scroller into the side borders, Future Shock has always stood out to me as a well designed, solidly executed whole and still does to this day.
I’ve never really been a fan of Mastertronic’s platform shooter Zub; some of this comes from having played it first on the C64 – which isn’t a perfect conversion of the original – but even when revisiting the original on the Spectrum over the years it just feels empty, in part because the developers were working to a strict deadline and didn’t have the time to get it finished to their own satisfaction. But one thing it does have going for it at least in the Spectrum 128K incarnation is an Easter egg called Lightfarce, a parody of a certain similarly-titled blaster which had just been released and was gathering quite a bit of media attention.
There’s nothing to write home about in Lightfarce on the originality front; it has big objects moving around and multi-level parallax scrolling but the action is incredibly simple, with enemies pootling down the screen and the player having to either blast or dodge them because collisions will sap some of their shield. Everything updates at quite a sedate pace but, due to the quite erratic movement of the nasties, keeping the ship safe from harm is tricky and can get the adrenalin pumping when there are only a few hits left on the energy gauge. The craft wraps around horizontally – completely disappearing off one side before reappearing on the other – which can occasionally prove helpful whilst trying to avoid collisions, but there aren’t any weapon power-ups or items that restore shield power.
There’s a beefed up version called Zarjas – a misspelling of “zarjaz”, the catchphrase of 2000AD’s editor Tharg which publishers Reaktor would later “borrow” wholesale – which was given away on Sinclair User’s covertape a few years later; the colour schemes have changed and it now sports a titles tune and loading picture, but more important than those cosmetic tweaks is the gameplay which has been rebalanced for the worse, making the enemies less predictable and allowing them take more health away from the player on contact. I get that they had to “rebrand” Lightfarce once it stopped hiding behind Zub‘ skirts, but just swapping the name out and wedging in the tune before going to the pub for the rest of the day would’ve been fine. If they absolutely had to alter the gameplay for some reason, just changing the movement pattern for one enemy type would’ve worked better.
Lightfarce was knocked out in an afternoon, I suspect as a diversion for coder John Pickford in order to avoid burnout from the crunch of finishing the game it was buried within, and free to anyone who’d paid their three quid for Zub. It was never going to set the shoot ’em up world on fire of course, but is still technically neat with those large sprites and the parallax, with the action being a forgettable but fun distraction for the player. For me personally, this little game is more entertaining than the bigger product it was bundled with or indeed some later Mastertronic efforts like Speed Zone. Zarjas is the same in most respects, but both it and Lightfarce have pretty sensitive collision detection so the former is significantly more frustrating overall to play and less enjoyable as a result.