Friday, 13 March 2015

The ZX Spectrum and Lunar Jetman

The Sinclair ZX Spectrum gave me my first ever experience of playing video games at home. Sure we had a variant of pong on our television before, my friend had a ZX81 and my cousin had an Atari 2600 VCS, which I too had originally wanted. But in the Christmas of 1982 the Spectrum arrived, it was ours, in our home and it's not too strong an admission to say it changed my life.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Life changing.

It had hi-res graphics which I'd never seen before. Yes the colour resolution was a bit weak but at least it had colours and basic sound too. It didn't have a cartridge slot which was disappointing however it did have a rubber keyboard with keywords on the keys which was intriguing. This was not a video game console it was a computer that could play video games and it was the best christmas present I ever had. You could type in program listings from the many magazines that sprung up and save them onto tape. They hardly ever worked proprely but still it was fun. You could not do this on a video games console like the Atari. Commercial games also loaded into the computer via audio cassette tapes.

It wasn't long before the humble spectrum had a vast library of video games available such as, Hungry Horace, Space Raiders, Time Gate, Planetoids, Spectres, Arcadia, Android One, Manic Miner and Jetpac, many of them written in the bedrooms of teenagers as well as more commercial software houses such as Bug Byte, Imagine, Ocean and of course Ultimate Play the Game.

Ultimate Play the Game. Just 25 miles down the road.

Ultimate set the bench mark for the quality of games players would expect. Games like Jetpac, Pssst!, Cookie and Trans Am for the 16K Spectrum, that's right just 16 kilobytes of memory for programmers to play with, and Atic Atac, Lunar Jetman, Sabre Wulf, Underwurlde, Knight Lore and Alien 8 which would only run on the higher memory model of spectrum which had a massive 48K. A later model would have a whopping 128K and better sound. That's one eighth of one megabyte. Laughable compared with today's gigabytes and terrabytes. What made Ultimate so fantastic for me was that this was not some huge company from the other side of the world in Silicon Valley, California. It was a small family business in the small town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch less than 25 miles away from where I grew up in Derby.

Jetpac. The first game I played on the Spectrum.

Jetpac was my first Spectrum game. One of two games, the other being Android One, which my dad had bought at a computer show in Birmingham. Once I saw it the disappointment of not getting the Atari VCS I wanted disappeared. This game was unbelievable. It was like an arcade game. Even the jetpac guys lasers fired like the one's I'd seen in the arcade game Defender. However, it was the sequel for the 48K Spectrum, Lunar Jetman, which became my favourite Ultimate game. Maybe even my favourite ZX Spectrum game of all time. For me it was the perfect arcade style video game which I could play at home.

Lunar Jetrman. My favourite game.

Instead of the single screen approach of the first game the sequel played over a scrolling planet landscape. The object of each level was to destroy an alien base or destroy the missile it fired before it hit and destroyed your lunar rover. Your jetpac hero, now called jetman, could get inside the rover for protection and drive it along the landscape. The landscape had a few 'holes' in it which had to be filled in with girders that could be retrieved from within the rover before you could drive further. It was quite scary as inside the rover jetman was safe but outside he could be killed by aliens.

The games difficulty was quite high for beginners.

Other objects that could be found and placed on the back of your rover were a bomb, a gun turret and two teleport doors. The bomb could be dropped on the alien base to blow it up although you could get many more points by using the gun turret and blasting away at aliens until the time ran out at which point you had to quickly find and destroy the missile that had been fired at your rover. This then took you to the next level of aliens in the game where the next missile required more shots to be destroyed. Clever use and placement of the two teleports also helped to provide a strategic element to locating and destroying each missile. Sometimes you even had to sacrifice a life by doing a kind of suicide attack at the missile to destroy it as you had five lives but only one rover.

Lunar Jetman's loading screen.

Gamers also believed that the rover trailer shown on the games loading screen and packaging was also hidden somewhere in the game and available for use due to a screenshot that a reader had sent in to the popular Spectrum games magazine Crash. Later examination of the game code proved that the screenshot was fake and the trailer was a total myth.

Unfortunately the existence of the trailer was a myth.

Talking of Crash magazine they also ran a Lunar Jetman comic strip based on the characters in the game written and illustrated by John Richardson.

The wacky adventures of Jetman.

Many people said that although this was a great game it was too difficult but with a lot of practice the controls and strategies became instinctive. I was able to regularly see my name, JON, up in lights at the top of the high score table above the default one hundred thousand plus ACG (Ashby Computers & Graphics) entry. I was very proud of this achievement even if I have no evidence of it ... right now.

I beat the top score regularly.... Honest.

The game had the just-one-more-go element to it as you always wanted to see what the aliens would look like on the next level. I believe two sets of alien graphics were used as each time a life was lost the alternate alien graphics were used. Purple sparkles and purple egg things which had the same movement pattern were one example that springs to mind.

Andy Noble's remake for the PC.

There is a remake of Lunar Jetman for the PC here.

I haven't tried it yet and I wonder if it will play as good as the original. I certainly hope so as for me it had a perfect balance of gameplay which was never surpassed by any other ZX Spectrum game. If you've never played it I strongly suggest you do as for me it still plays as well now as it ever did all those years ago back in 1983.


  1. But did you play with a Kempston Joystick? Or one of those Quickshot models that broke every few months...

    1. I did get a Kempston stick but hardly used it. Mainly because it only had to move the unit connected to the edge connector slightly and this would be enough the crash and freeze the Speccy up. Not great when you've got to wait five minutes or so for the game to load back into memory. So I was strictly rubber keyboard with most games including this one.

    2. OMG, Pak John. I have never get the chance to play with that game before. It's very interesting though.

  2. Waow! Its Great :) Take a look on Android Wear Game: Jetman Freestyle