"Roll up, roll up, see the amazing Tyrannosaurus Rex, king of the dinosaurs, in his lair." Of all the things you might expect to find running on a ZX81 in 1981, a real time, first-person, 3D maze game would probably be somewhere near "impossible" on your list. Yet, that's exactly what Malcolm Evans was able to pull off--basically in his spare time, as little more than a diversion for himself. Nevertheless, Evans' tinkering became one of the most celebrated games for the ZX81 and a forerunner of the modern first-person game.
Sometimes a so-called "primitive" and "underpowered" machine can become a nexus of creativity and a haven for virtuoso hackers. That's certainly the case with the British-produced Sinclair ZX81 platform, home to some of the most innovative and forward-looking games of the early 80s. Although the ZX81 suffered from a monochrome display, miserable keyboard, no sound, and only 16K of RAM (and that was with an expensive add-on!), the ZX81 seemed to capture the imaginations of a whole generation of mostly European hackers, who delighted in finding ways to "do the impossible" and "achieve the unthinkable" on the unit; to do what "They said couldn't be done." Much of the challenge stemmed from the ZX81's inability to display true graphics; everything had to be done with the character map, which, thankfully, did include some characters that could be use to represent walls and surprisingly realistic-looking dinosaurs.
Evans' 3D Monster Maze is certainly a prime example of this mentality. While the concept of the game is almost sinister in its simplicity--escape each level of a labyrinth before being caught by a hungry T-Rex--the execution is nothing less than startling. Part of the challenge of getting through each maze and staying out of T-Rex's way is the cumbersome keyboard layout. Rather than having all the "arrows" in a sensible layout like modern keyboards, the ZX81's were laid out in a single row. The non-intuitive nature of the setup actually adds to the tension, since a few moments of indecisiveness as you struggle to remember which key to press is more than T-Rex needs to satisfy his hunger.
There are several other innovations that make this game unique. First is the rather odd "back story" reminiscent of the old Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. At the beginning of the game, a carnival hawker (a clown?) tells you that a live T-Rex, "perfectly preserved in silicon since prehistoric times," has been thawed out for your "entertainment and exhilaration." The puns on "silicon" and the like make for some quirky hacker humor, and there's an air of ghoulishness throughout the game. When you inevitably end up as a gummy worm for T-Rex, the screen shows you a close-up of T-Rex's maw and are "posthumously awarded" points, then "sentenced to roam the maze forever." Before that, though, you get a chance (rather like in some pinball "match" games) to score another chance at the maze. This "feature" seems to break the immersion of the game in favor of a more "pinball like" experience, where the emphasis is on technical skill rather than mood and atmosphere.
The game's tension is also amped up by the various messages that keep you alerted to T-Rex's status. For instance, if T-Rex hasn't noticed you, you'll get a report saying "REX LIES IN WAIT." Once you're spotted, you're told that "REX HAS SEEN YOU," and from then on it's time to haul it. "RUN! HE IS BEHIND YOU." It's just as sweat-inducing as anything from id!
The story of the game's development makes for compelling reading. Edge magazine has a great making-of article about the game that features lots of quotations from Evans, as well as box shots and screen shots of the game. It's one of those "Aw, it was nothing" stories that make you feel like an inferior life form for having never accomplished anything of the sort.
The game has managed to retain a huge cult following to this very day. A remake of the game can be found on the NGS website, but hardcore folks will want to head to MobyGames for the original. I had a lot of luck with an emulator called Eighty One, which worked flawlessly in XP.
Oh, and by the way, if you enjoyed this retro review, be sure to check out my reviews of The Sword of Fargoal and The Dungeons of Daggorath, two other classic games that no self-respecting retrogamer should ignore.
Thanks for that review Matt. Now a FPS on a ZX81 is really freakishâ€¦err well a predecessor to modern FPS anyways. I played a similar game on a ZX48 but didnâ€™t think something like this was possible on the ZX81. I just love the fact that this type of game is programmed on such a limited machine. Squeezing out those last drops of performance, optimizing your code for maximum speed, code running closely integrated with the hardware is what makes coding for these old machines so much fun.
A lot of machines had their fair share of great hardcore coded apps like this game, the c64, the ZX48 and quite a few consoles too. I think the old xbox has not reached it's full potential yet, no apps have really squeezed out the last performance out of that PC in disguise. The same goes for the Dreamcast.
-= Mark Vergeer - Armchair Arcade editor =-