Yes, my phobia of large red triangles blighted my childhood and turned that school trip to the road sign factory into a nightmare of blood-curdling terror. No, of course not - this is just the loading screen, and The Power House are the publishers. The terrifying part comes in a moment, but first a short tale to set the scene. Imagine you're around six or seven years old and you've just got hold of a ZX Spectrum, your first computer (unless you count the ancient Commodore 16 that you banged your pudgy fists against as an infant). It came with a few games, too. Computer games! Oh, such wonders, such joy! So you pick out a tape called Soft & Cuddly, and it sounds like a good place to start because you are too young to understand that sometimes things are named ironically. After an eternity, the tape finishes loading and you are presented with this.
This screen absolutely terrified me as a child. Not like seeing a scary scene in a movie that quickly fades from memory, but something traumatic that has stayed with me for many years and is still my defining mental image of the Spectrum. Think ZX, think bleeding (yet disturbingly cheerful) zombie face flanked by two unidentifiable monsters chewing baby heads. Something about this scene just happened to find the softest, most tender part of my juvenile brain and grabbed hold. Even as a kid, I was never one to be scared of things in movies and books - I knew they were fake and there were plenty of real things to be scared of, thank you very much - but Soft & Cuddly did the trick. I've wondered about this for a long time, and I think I've realised why this is the case: while I knew movie monsters like Freddy Kruger or zombies were created to be fun, to scare people but primarily to entertain them, this image didn't feel like it was much concerned with entertaining people and was instead the crazed outpourings of someone who had genuine mental issues.
Before I get onto the game itself, let's take a look at the packing that this loathsome little program was wrapped in because it's pretty interesting in its own right.
(Picture taken from World of Spectrum)
I'm pretty sure I didn't see the cover before I loaded the game, because it might have tipped me off that "Soft & Cuddly" was not an accurate representation of the contents. If you're following the VGJunk Tumblr, you might have seen me mention this cover before, because I'm kind of fascinated with it. At no point in the game do you encounter an emaciated demon perched atop a pile of severed heads, and that's probably because this cover wasn't created specifically for the game. It's a piece by fantasy and sci-fi artist Tim White, and if his name isn't familiar you'll definitely recognise some of his work if, like me, you were the kind of geeky kid in the late eighties / early nineties who read a lot of horror and sci-fi novels. This image was originally used as the cover of an omnibus of H. P. Lovecraft stories called Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, and I can thank S&C for making me a fan of everyone's favourite prophet of unfathomable cosmic horror because I saw Dagon in my local library and my brain did somersaults as I thought "holy hell, that's the Soft & Cuddly cover!". Obviously I had to read it after that, and now I have a plush Cthulhu sitting on the desk in front of me. Such is the strange way the world works sometimes.
That's just the main picture, though. Equally odd is the little robot thing on the back flap (the left-hand side of the above image), which I always took to be an extremely inaccurate picture of the main character. Turns out it's actually taken from a different Tim White picture called "Geezenstacks".
Knowing that it's actually an adorable picture of a mouse in a spacesuit has gone some way to demolishing S&C's terrifying mystique. I have no idea why The Power House chose to use that particular image, completely divorced from the game as it is, but it's nice to finally settle the mystery of just what the hell it's supposed to be. I do wonder whether The Power House got permission to use these images, because S&C was originally a £1.99 budget release and they had to keep cost down somehow - like, say, by not paying artists any royalties. If someone from The Power House ever reads this and is offended by this suggestion and Tim White definitely did get paid for it, I can only apologise.
Okay, I've put it off long enough. What about the actual game?
Here's the first screen, then. You play as that small blue man on the left-hand side of the screen. Yes, the one with no arms and the head of a (video game) Lemming. That big white thing is an anvil that falls from the sky as soon as you move from your starting position, an oddly misplaced bit of Looney Tunes slapstick that can and will kill you instantly the first time you start the game. Cheers for that.
According to the instructions your mother has been chopped into eight pieces, but as she's the Android Queen this is more of an inconvenience than a gruesome slaughter. Our hero has to find her body parts to stitch her back together, but to do this he needs to collect the eight Spirit Keys and take them to his father. His father is locked in a fridge somewhere for reasons that are never explained but probably have to do with an accident whilst midnight snacking. Get the keys to find the body parts, find all the chunks of your mum, find a needle and thread to sew her back together and bam, you're done.
Finding all these find involves traipsing through a labyrinthine set of 256 screens, avoiding monsters and obstacles. It's all very straightforward, with our "hero" able to move freely in all directions because instead of jumping he gets a jetpack to help him move around. He's got a laser gun for blasting enemies, but it can overheat with repeated use. Slightly more unusual is that three times per life you can press the "I" key to turn you both invisible and invincible for a short period. Being invincible is great and all, but its usefulness is somewhat limited by the fact that you can't see what the fuck you're doing. The manual suggests firing your gun so you know where you are, but if you're up against a wall or trying to navigate a narrow passageway then you can't see your laser beams. What mechanism does our hero use to become invisible? Damned if I know, but being the child of the Android Queen must have its advantages. The Queen probably chose it like an optional extra on a new car as she was giving birth / assembling her child. Still, it can come in handy occasionally.
After having overcome my childhood terror and reached the game proper, was it worth it? Not really. I'm sorry to all the Spectrum enthusiasts out there, but the vast majority of Spectrum games are now too primitive to be much fun. There are still some classics which can hold your interest even now, and there are many more that are very impressive given the time that they were created, but mostly they're clunky, repetitive affairs that are more frustrating than fun. Soft & Cuddly definitely falls headfirst into the "frustrating" end of the pool, given that it fails on such basic levels as getting the bloody goal of the game correct. You know how the instructions tell you that there are keys that need finding? This is... how can I put this delicately? Complete bollocks. Yeah. Here's a letter sent in to the tips page of Your Sinclair magazine.
A letter from John George Jones, creator of S&C no less, explaining that the instructions are wrong and there are no keys after all. A misprint on the instructions? An early feature that was taken out of the final game but not the instructions? Perhaps it was John George Jones trying to mess with people? This option becomes more believable once you realise that he was a bit of a "character" - in an interview with Sinclair User magazine he declares that Mozart and Shakespeare are "rubbish," that he's on his third life (out of twelve) and most bafflingly of all that Soft & Cuddly is the best game ever made.
Sadly, S&C is not the best game ever made. It's dull, slow, awkward and needlessly convoluted. Now I know I have to find the fridge and that's all well and good, but the fridge appears in a different random place every time you load the game. So you schlep through this neon-colored hell, hoping to survive long enough to encounter the large kitchen appliance that is your ultimate goal, all the while being beset on all sides by childishly graphic images of cartoon gore.
Don't get me wrong, I love childish cartoon gore. In fact, it's really the only thing that S&C has going for it, and it was certainly uncommon enough in the computer games of 1987 to make the game stand out a little. While I'm not longer scared by S&C, it does still feel a little... unsettling, like I've wandered into someone’s private diary that they've filled with pictures of babies being mutilated instead of their fond memories or hopes for the future.
Then there's this strange fascination with skulls in berets. Skulls in berets pop up in almost every screen, in all shapes, sizes and colours that the Spectrums limited palette would allow. We've gone from the diary of a madman to the school notebooks of that one kid who was obsessed with guns and spent every lesson doodling wars. A commentary on the ruthless nature of the military-industrial complex? Maybe, if they didn't share the screen with a zombie sheep.
The most irritating thing about this game is just trying to stay alive. You've got three lives to complete the entire game, and frankly that is not enough. Your health is constantly being sapped by every single bloody thing, from the (curiously uninteresting, given the rest of the graphics) enemies that buzz around aimlessly, to the walls and floors that may or may not damage you if you so much as brush against them, to the crushing mechanisms, giant spikes and, yes, skulls in berets that block your path at every turn. All of these things are chipping away at your limited pool of health the entire time, and moving too quickly to avoid something that's hurting you only ever seems to lead to you walking straight into another deadly trap.
I persevered, though. I struggled on. I found the paths that were marginally less deadly, memorised them and made my way deeper into this nightmare of military headbones and eye-scalding colours than ever before. Then I found it: The Fridge.
Finally, some progress! I manoeuvred my way right up to the fridge door, steeled myself and stepped into it and... nothing happened. Nothing fucking happened. Well, I got my health back but beyond that nothing seemed to change. Then I tried to leave the fridge and lost half my newly-replenished health by banging into the door handle. It was at this point that I gave up on Soft & Cuddly. I'm sure you won't blame me.
That's my fear of Soft & Cuddly cured, at least. It's been replaced by a sort of rankling irritation, but I'd rather look at that title screen and think "man, what a sub-par game" than "Jesus Christ get it away from me!". It's definitely interesting, though, what with the unusual-for-the-time horror theme, the Lovecraftian artwork and the "personality" of the creator. Don't leave yet - it's got one last fascinating feature up its sleeve. Spectrum games came on cassette tapes, and S&C only took up one side of said tape. So, what shall we put on the other side? How about a completely unrelated song by a band called H.E.X.?
Personally, I think the lyrics "American successful woman, waiting for the penetration" will be remembered long after I'm dead, mentioned in the same breath as the works of Bob Dylan and Neil Young. I mock, but after having listened to this song a few times in preparation for this article it's wedged so far into the vulnerable, music-remembering part of my brain that the only cure is to put it on my MP3 player and listen to it on the bus. Twenty years later, and Soft & Cuddly is still messing with my head. Fantastic.