We’ve jumped back in time 3 years this week, from Batman’s 1986 to a very early Spectrum game called Penetrator that came out in early 1983. The amusing name was entirely lost on the 7 year old me as I was a rather naive kid and it wasn’t until several years later I’d even discovered hedge porn and even then I wasn’t entirely sure what went where. Anyway, I digress, Penetrator might sound like some 70’s porn spoof but it is actually a very early Scramble clone. Early in the sense that Scramble itself had only been out for a year at this point.
You only have to look at the inlay sleeve art work to tell just how old it is. Whilst not as terrible as the likes of Thro’ the Wall (another 1982 classic) or Psion’s Space Raiders, which proudly proclaimed it was written in machine code(!), it’s definitely of it’s time.
Scramble was one of those seminal arcade games that I constantly got thrown out of the local snooker hall for sneaking in to the lobby to look at. Scramble defined a genre, and has been copied/improved on for decades since. I only ever got to play the actual arcade machine once, and that was many years later on a residential school geography trip to Edale but I’ve put a few hours in to it on MAME since. It’s good, solid, colourful fun and I’ll warn you now, that at some point in the future we’ll return to it’s influences when we hit the 16-bit era. Scramble invented what is the tunnel shooter genre, you fly a ship along a forced scrolling terrain, having to collect fuel etc and avoid obstacles.
Oddly enough the Scramble clones on the Spectrum, like Penetrator, were actually better than the official port, which was resplendent is magenta but otherwise not too hot to play. Penetrator also had a level editor built in- apparently the programmers originally designed it to make their life easier and then decided to leave it in for all and sundry to use. Hurrah!
My brother and I spent many an hour designing levels that were almost entirely flat but for one incredibly high spike that almost always caught the sibling playing it out. Those were the days, simple games for simple minds.
Still, out of all the games we’ve played so far, I doubt any have looked as basic as Penetrator, with it’s wire frame backgrounds and fairly limited sprites. And have I mentioned the horrific colours? No? Well I should. Level 3 is enough to put you off green for the rest of your natural life on it’s own.
We fire up Penetrator. We have to listen to some really irritating sirens, a firework display (pixel art before it was called pixel art if you like) and the world’s worst bit of computerised handwriting before we can even get to the menu screen. It’s not an auspicious start.
Sam: Can you come and get me when we can actually play this? I’m really bored waiting.
Penetrator is finally drawn in massive blocky white text and we get the option screen, which also has an option to turn the sodding siren effect off.
Me: No worries, we can play it now. Don’t you think it’s odd that you can turn the really irritating noise off? It’s like they knew it was really irritating so gave you the option to turn it off but if they knew it was really irritating, why include it in the first place?
Sam: They’re mad. The men who made this game. It’s like they don’t want you to play it. You have to wait ages for it to load and then you have to wait ages until you can actually play it.
At this point I usually come up with some rose tinted reason why things were the way they were but even I’m struggling. The sirens, the unskippable bit, it’s a design nightmare.
Me: I agree but it we’ve made it past the wonky bit, so the game itself is actually a lot better. Promise. Oh.
We’ve left it on the menu screen for too long while we’ve been talking, so it’s exited the menu and we have to go through the entire sirens, fireworks and drawing the name bit of the game again.
Sam: Kill me. Or better yet, kill them.
Me: Whoops. Lets not kill anyone. Lets play some Penetrator. Uncle Ben and I used to love this when we were your age. Honest. Would I have picked it if it was rubbish?
Sam: Yes. Just like you picked Batman and Way of the Exploding Fist. This is going to be rubbish. I’m telling you, rubbish.
Me: That’s the spirit! I’m sure you’re going to be pleasantly surprised, now come here and give me your fingers…
Me: Come here, it’s keyboard only time my young padawan learner. Q and A, up and down, O is slow down, P is speed up if you hold it, fire if you tap it repeatedly. Oh, and the bottom row all drop a bomb.
Sam: What? Speed up AND shoot are the same key?
Me: Er, yes. That’s why it makes more sense to use a keyboard than a joystick. At least I think it does, or it might have been a game that we played to death before we got the joystick, I can’t remember on account of it being a very long time ago.
Sam pulls the sort of face that is usually reserved for some of the more experimental cuisine he has to face at the dinner table.
Me: Look, you’ll be able to call yourself a proper hardcore gamer if you do at least some keyboard gaming. None of your little mates will have such abilities.
Amid much grumbling we fire hit play with Sam’s fingers on the keys. He’s not a happy bunny though. Penetrator is a forced scroller; you can slow your ship down a bit with O and make it go a bit faster with P (unless you’re shooting missiles by mistake of course) but that’s the limit on horizontal action, it’s mostly about the up and down. There are a lot of crashes as Sam tries out the new control method. I like this recurring theme of constant death we appear to have found. It makes a difference from something like LEGO Marvel’s Avengers where you respawn immediately for th loss of a few studs when you die.
Sam: Why has the yellow ground turned blue under the spaceship?
Me: That’s a feature called attribute clash. It was all the rage on the Spectrum.
Sam: [beginning to get the hang of the controls] This isn’t too bad actually. I think I would like to play it with the joystick but it’s quite fun. It just looks rubbish.
Me: That’s about as glowing endorsement as I can hope for I suppose. We’ve got to wind this up now though as it’s bath time mate. [No matter how I organise myself, we still end up playing these games at about 6:30pm on a Sunday. That’s the same slot I used to do my homework in too. Some things never change]. One more game okay? And maybe another look at the fireworks…
Penetrator was an early Spectrum game but, irritating user interface aside, it wasn’t actually that bad. Perhaps it’s one of those less is more things, but I actually enjoyed it. Fast forward 4 or 5 years into the Speccy’s life, games like Slap Fight looked brilliant but weren’t, in my humble opinion, any more fun to play. Next week we hit our last Spectrum game before moving on to the Commodore 64. Next week we’re playing Renegade!