Revisiting a ZX Spectrum Type-In

A couple of weekends back, I had possibly the most nostalgic day I’m ever likely to have clearing some of my old stuff from my parents house. We moved into that house when I was about 5 years old and the oversized loft has been something of a dumping ground ever since. Despite moving out years back, I’ve never got round to sorting out all my stuff as there was never any pressing need. My Dad is planning on moving himself this year though so it all needs to be cleared. The biggest find were all my childhood comics of which there are hundreds (now sold off on Ebay). I also discovered a Sinclair Programs magazine from February 1985 containing loads of ZX Spectrum game listings. Anyone above a certain age will probably remember magazines like this where you were expected to type in the code for each game from the pages. These would frequently have errors leading to much frustration in trying to figure out why it didn’t work. This process provided an early insight into programming for lots of kids like myself and you will find plenty of developers who started out from type ins. The most obvious example from an Origin standpoint being Chris Roberts whose Kong type-in game appeared some years back on this blog.

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If you had asked me before I found this, I’d have said that I remembered typing in games from numerous magazines as a kid. The fact is that every game that I can vaguely remember is included in this one magazine. There are some reviews in there as well but the majority of the pages are code listings for a score of games.

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Of personal note is this back page with an advert for the keyboard that I got to replace the ever unreliable rubber keyboard of my Spectrum. Given the cut out part of the page, this must be the very advert that we bought it from all those years back.

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At any rate with all this nostalgia in the air I thought I’d keep it going by doing something I’ve not tried in 30 years, typing in some game listings. There are several of these games I can recall well enough to know that I played them but the details are patchy. I’ll go for a relatively short one first which impressed me with its graphics at the time with something of a city landscape drawn with lots of lines and dots. I was no doubt easily impressed back then so we’ll see what it looks like now.

The process of typing this in is a whole lot easier than on the original 16K or 48K ZX Spectrum. For those that haven’t ever used one, there were various types of “shift” mode for every key meaning it could type in all the basic commands like PRINT and LOAD with one keypress. This was in fact the only way that it would accept BASIC commands so you needed to learn where all these keywords were and couldn’t just type the word in. This system was also on the ZX81 which had a keyboard that was far more board than it was key being a flat immovable piece of plastic. Reducing typing probably made sense in those circumstances. It also saved memory as I understand by just storing a reference to the basic command rather than the whole word in the program listing. Again on the ZX81 with a frankly ludicrous 1K of RAM by default, probably a good idea.

The 128K spectrum improved matters by actually allowing you to type in the commands. This is the machine I own these days but I’m cheating here and typing it on an emulator first just so I don’t have to save to tape every time I want to test it.

Cheating or not, typing in the program is quite a lengthy procedure, a lot more than I expected. The Spectrum can’t always keep up with my typing and misses out characters. Everything has to be exact and I ended up having to proofread through much of the code after I’d typed it in. To make debugging somewhat easier I decided to type out relevant lines and test as I went along rather than going in strictly line number order. I had at least a couple of dozen typos of my own to sort out before I got this working. Everything in the magazine was correct at least so I didn’t have to fix any existing errors.

One point to note is that the program redefines some of the character graphics by poking new ones into memory so that the ufos, trees, etc.. in the game can be represented by these tiles. Where a letter is underlined in the text, it means I have to swap the spectrum to graphics mode, enter the letter, then swap out again to continue typing. This took a little figuring out and doesn’t appear to be mentioned anywhere in the magazine.

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To get the program to an actual Spectrum, I save it to a virtual cassette in the emulator, then use a utility to convert the tzx file to a wav which I emailed to my phone. I’ve got one of those car audio cassette adaptors for this purpose which plugs into the headphone jack and I can then just play it into the Speccy as if it was a cassette. If you ever want to use one of these things by the way, just slide the cassette into the open deck as above, don’t try to load the cassette conventionally as it will slice off the cable within a few uses.

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So what does the game look like after all that. Graphically, it isn’t bad actually for a type in. Most of the code deals with drawing the city using lots of draw/plot commands. This takes some time on the Z80 in BASIC. The game plays like the spaceship sequences in Ultima 1 if anything except with two UFOs at a time instead of the one. I have to move a cursor around trying to blast them before they destroy the city. Everything moves in character jumps so it’s not smooth or fast but for a type-in, it’s ok. After an hour of typing, you will probably be bored with it within a couple of minutes mind you.

I got a watered down version of the experience here but reliving this little piece of the 80’s, it’s kind of hard to believe this was ever a thing. The reward for the effort is incredibly minimal but I did learn/relearn a bit about Spectrum BASIC in the process. Who knows, I may not have got into programming myself if it wasn’t for this particular magazine so it must be at least partly to blame for my career since. It would be hard to imagine a kid having the patience these days. For anyone curious enough to try this out, the tzx is available here.

After a severe lack of Origin in recent posts, I probably ought to consider renaming this site but there is no way I can be bothered to create a new banner. So instead, I’ll get back on topic and finally have a proper playthrough of Wing Commander 2 on FM Towns next week.

PC Zone Issue 58 (Xmas 1997)

After a long break, I’m resuming my project to archive PC Zone. This has been going on for some years but has a long way left to go. The aim is to do at least one issue a week from here on out, working my way backwards from the block I’ve already done. This ought to be easily achievable and if I do manage to keep it up for the rest of the year I’ll have filled in all the gaps back to the start before 2019. I am still missing some issues however and all the floppy cover disks. If anyone wants to help out in any way please drop me a line. I’m especially interested in the early issues of which I’m missing a good number.

The next on the list was Xmas 1997:-

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This is a bumper size issue including reviews of such classics as Grand Theft Auto, Curse Of Monkey Island and Blade Runner. I’ve also archived the cover CD and as ever all of these can be found with all the other scans at http://www.pixsoriginadventures.co.uk/PCZone

There isn’t much Origin content in this issue but there is a cool 3 page ad for Wing Commander Prophecy and also a full page ad for Netstorm which was developed by ex-Origin staff.

Ultima 9 Prints Charity Auction

I’ve been asked to publicize a charity auction in aid of the Toronto Sick Kids Hospital for this series of signed Ultima Ascension prints:-

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The seller was given these for beta testing the first patch back around 98/99. The prints are all signed by Lord British, very nicely framed, and would look fantastic on any Ultima fans wall. I could definitely find a place for them but I’m still getting over my moving costs so I’ll reluctantly leave them for someone else.

If you fancy owning them the auction is at https://www.ebay.com/itm/Ultima-Ascension-posters-autographed-by-Lord-British-Richard-Garriott/162882275307 and has 8 days to go at time of writing.

Ultima Patcher 1.62

I’ve updated the Ultima Patcher for the first time in nearly 3 years. This was prompted by Time Machine Dragon contacting me about his improved Ultima 4 music patch (http://sacredbacon.com/ultima/). This swaps the music for modified versions of Minstrel Dragons MIDI files which were in turn based on the mockingboard Apple II soundtrack. These have more voices than the default music included with the VGA patch and can now be swapped in and out directly from the patcher. Note that this will only work correctly with MPU-401 as the sound device.

I’ve included the latest version of the Ultima 3 upgrade (http://exodus.voyd.net/projects/ultima3/). This corrects the PC speaker sound effect speed.

Finally, I’ve added in the current directories that the games are installed to by default in the automatic search so you don’t always have to find the directory manually. GOG seem to insist on moving these directories around for reasons best known to them.

The new version can be download here. As ever, if there is anything else I should include or something that doesn’t work please let me know.

Manhunter New York – Part 2

Manhunter is set in 2004 a couple of years after the orb invasion of Earth that must have passed me by at the time. These orbs are aliens resembling giant floating eyeballs who have enslaved the population, implanted them with tracking chips and forced them all to dress in brown hooded cloaks. A select few humans get chosen to be Manhunters who work as detectives for the Orbs and the game starts with my first day on the job.

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My first case involves tracking down whoever caused an explosion at the Bellevue hospital. I do this with the aid of my CAD laptop with which I can track the movements of people involved in the crime. These tracking devices apparently didn’t include identifiers which is something of an oversight but at least I’m in a job. As may have been seen in part 1, the hospital contains the corpse of another Manhunter being eaten up by lots of baby orbs. If I look up the name on the toe-tag up on my laptop it tells me he has been transferred to Chicago…

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I have to work a case a day over 4 days discovering a human resistance movement along the way. Using their plan, I can ultimately defeat the orbs in New York. The way this story is told can be rather cryptic being almost entirely without dialog (maybe speech has also been banned?). The only time anything ever speaks in the whole game is when the orb gives you a mission at the start of each day.

The Manhunter series plays like no other AGI game. It’s nearly all in 1st person mode and as previously mentioned has no parser. There is still an inventory which can be brought up with the tab key. Select an item in here and you can attempt to use it in whatever situation you are in. For someone who had only just discovered Sierra games, the lack of a parser may have been part of the appeal. This stripped down approach is essentially point and click except without any pointing or clicking and takes the guess the word side of text parsers away.

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There are also a stack of little mini arcade games dotted throughout. I wouldn’t say any of them are great in their own right but they don’t outstay their welcome. In this first one here, I have to prove myself by throwing knives between this guys fingers. Miss and I’ll be thrown out of the bar I’m in and unable to get the vital clue hidden on the arcade machine. Like so much of the game, why there is a clue on the arcade machine in the first place is less than clear. In this particular arcade game I have to work through a maze avoiding the walls and doing so will show me a pattern which is supposed to lead me to knock down some keypie dolls in a certain order when I get to Coney Island later in the game. You will need to be using a good deal of trial and error and lateral thinking to get through these puzzles.

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Knocking down the kewpie dolls and showing a medallion I found earlier earns me a data card containing a short ditty. You want to take serious note of the name Phil here. From day two on, most of the suspects I’m chasing start turning up dead with the perpetrator showing up on the tracking system on my laptop but I’m unable to select him and follow him around. As I’ll ultimately learn it’s the mysterious Phil to blame and begs the question why I’m even on the case if the orbs have this guy killing everyone before I get chance to find them.

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One of the suspects on day 2 is led by Phil through Central Park which has now been turned into a minefield. I have to be very careful to follow the exact route shown on my laptop if I don’t want my body parts spread around central park. Phil has already done in my suspect by the time I arrive but he has scrawled a clue onto a rock with his blood (“COO …”) which is supposed to lead me to the fact that the guy doing this is called Phil Cook, in turn meaning I can look him up in my laptop and find his home address. This is where I got hopelessly stuck back in the 80’s and requires a serious leap of logic. There is another clue of sorts when I enter the park where the Murry’s warn me to “not get my goose cooked” but no real reason to tie this to his name. I seriously doubt many people figured this out – it’s frankly a terrible puzzle but did sell me a hint book which may have been the point.

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Skipping ahead to day 4, I learn that humans are being ground down for meat in true Soylent Green style. To put a stop to this I get to steal an orb spaceship and go around bombing the 4 orb centres of operation around New York.

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Manage this and there is a brief celebration, cut short when Phil vaporizes everyone except me. I fly off after him and into Manhunter 2 which moved over to San Francisco. This sequel never made it onto the IIGS so I’ll have to move back to PC again if I ever blog through that one. Manhunter 2 had even more of a cliffhanger ending only to never get the sequel I so badly wanted. It’s about time we had a Manhunter 3 Kickstarter if you ask me.

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So how well does the game hold up these days? It’s arguably a little more playable that your usual AGI title since there is no walking a little character around a screen or text parser. The puzzles can be seriously obtuse to counterbalance this. It’s hard for me to judge just how obtuse when I know the solution from nearly 30 years back but there is no way I’d have been solving all of these without a walkthrough. The sections tracking people on the laptop are quite neat and it’s a good setup for a game. Manhunter 2 would take more advantage of it.

The mixture of horror and sci-fi + the big colourful graphics and arcade sections won me over as a kid and as AGI games go it’s something of a looker. The graphics are all very strange and quirky with little touches of humour throughout. I’d have been very interested to see what an SCI Manhunter 3 could have been like but am unlikely to ever see one now. The storyline is all a little muddled and random if I’m honest but you do gradually learn about the world you are in. More exposition would certainly have helped but you are left to work it all out for yourself. The world of Manhunter is all certainly strange but it’s still one of my favourite AGI games. I’ve far too much nostalgia for my opinion to count for much here but it’s got to be worth a go for adventure game fans.

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As for playing it on the IIGS, it generally added to the experience but PC gamers weren’t missing out on all that much. You aren’t going to be overly impressed with the new soundtrack but it does have more to offer than the original. The horribly slow IIGS processor does reduce the pace when loading screens. This is especially painful when navigating the 3D maze on day 1. It also can’t keep up on the laptop tracking screens if lots of people are in a room with the framerate dropping to about 1 FPS. This is the exception rather than the rule and Manhunter runs at a reasonable speed 95% of the time. The IIGS is probably the best version to play but maybe whack your emulator speed up a bit or see if you can find one of those overpriced Transwarp cards to get some more speed.