Andrew Newton on the video games we were playing back in the day…
Welcome back to the August of 1981, a month when cinemas saw the release of the brilliant American Werewolf in London and when, like this year, the weather didn’t know if it wanted to be wet or dry but mostly decided on being wet. In fact at one point it went so dark and stormy that the street lights came on and it went down in headlines as daytime darkness. Despite this atrocious weather, gamers still had things to keep them occupied inside, where the loving glare of the TV screen welcomed you into pixelated worlds.
Planet of Death – Artic Computing – ZX81
Planet of Death was the first of eight text adventures created by Artic Computing and is a possible candidate for the crown of first text adventure produced in the UK for retail purposes. The ZX81 version of the game required 16 kilobytes of memory to run so it was essential to buy the 16K ram pack expansion if you wanted to play.
With this text adventure, players were taken to an alien planet where their main objective was to get in their spacecraft and escape. Sounds like an easy enough plan, right? The only problem with that plan was the planet was swarming with hostile alien meanies and they had captured the spaceship. It was up to the stranded spaceman to explore a number of locations, including a limestone cave and mountain plateau, avoid numerous dangers, get access to the space ship and escape.
Was it any good? To be honest I never completed it, but it got a version made for the Spectrum the following year and then a Commodore 64 version in ’84 and Amstrad in ’85. It even had a remake for Android and can be found now on Google Play for a mere 99p.
Kaboom – Activision – Atari 2600
Kaboom is an action game that is remarkably similar in gameplay to the Atari 1978 game, Avalanche, in that things come falling from the top of the screen. However, unlike falling rocks from the titular Avalanche, and as the cover image above shows, Kaboom features a mad bomber who dashes along the top of the screen chucking down bombs like it’s going out of fashion.
During gameplay, the bomber moves along the top of the screen and the player controls the three buckets near the bottom using the paddle controller. A rather miserable looking bomber insanely throws bombs down the screen at various points and the player is tasked to catch them. Should the player fail to catch a bomb the bomber becomes all happy as it explodes along with other bombs currently on screen and the player loses one bucket. Should all buckets be lost then it is as Hudson from Aliens would say “It’s game over man!”
As the game progressed the little sod at the top of the screen would start dropping bombs at increasingly higher speeds, making the levels much more difficult.
A nice touch from Activision for gamers was that those who scored over 3000 points could send them a photograph of the screen in exchange for membership in the exclusive Activision Bucket Brigade and a Bucket Brigade patch.
Popeye – Game & Watch
I’m Popeye the sailor man, I live in a caravan…… as the playground song went in the ’80s. Ah, the good old sailor who got his strength by eating tins of raw spinach was Popeye-lar (sorry) in the ’80s despite being as old as the hills then. Maybe it was because Nintendo got the rights to make a game about him, who knows. His cartoons were often on TV and it always seemed he had to save Olive Oil from Brutus by eating the aforementioned raw veg’. What was it about Olive that had the men going for her anyway? I mean if it was Jessica Rabbit I could understand.
Popeye is a simple game where players have to move our nautical hero left and right to catch the items thrown at you by Olive Oil, while on the right side of the screen in Brutus who is trying to whack him. Failing to catch three objects or getting hit by Brutus will result in a game over.
The game doesn’t sound too interesting but was a quite fun gameplay mechanic at the time.
Munchman and Mini-Munchman – Grandstand
Munchman was a tabletop video game that came in a futuristic looking yellow case that reminded you of a certain popular videogame character of the time. If you have seen the picture below, Munchman was a Pac Man clone.
First thing though, the case to the game is absolutely beautifully designed. The bright yellow plastic, the slightly raised dome for the screen and the smooth round shape with none of the sharp angles that were popular with other tabletop games really made the game stand out. In fact, the design of the case is well worth buying one for yourself.
As you can tell from the picture, the maze looks very different to the Pac Man version as it’s only half the size and doesn’t include a full maze of dots. This is partly thanks to it being an LED game and the fact that a ghost, Munchman and dots cannot go in the same space. This lack of being in the same space also means that it’s sometimes difficult to tell if you have been caught by the ghost. Another thing that slightly spoiled the fun was that the dots could only be eaten when you moved in a right to left direction.
I never had one of these as a child, but in the days when kids could bring in toys on the last day of term without the school fearing law suits from parents over lost or damaged toys I did get to play it when a friend brought one into class. But owning one now it really hasn’t stood the test of time.
Grandstand also produced a handheld LCD game titled Mini-Munchman. This was a much better little game with many more items to pick up, you may notice the dots are now a healthy food option.
Although the controls on Mini-Munchman are more spongy feeling than that of its tabletop bigger brother, it was much more enjoyable to play and you can spend a lot longer playing it. The downside is its case is just not as attractive as Munchman’s. Go on, admit it, the yellow case of Munchman is simply beautiful.
August 1981 was surely a month to enjoy, if time travel ever becomes a thing then it’s one time to consider visiting. Though there are better gaming times to come, just be sure to come back next month and see the games we were playing then.