17/01/2013

SKULL (ZX SPECTRUM)

The foot bone's connected to the ankle bone, the back bone's connected to the shoulder bone and the head bone is connected to... nothing at all! Dear Lord, what fresh species of horror is this?! Well, I'll tell you: it's Games Machine's 1984 ZX Spectrum title Skull. Skull?


Yep, Skull. That's a skull and no mistake. Very nice it looks too, although closer inspection does bring to light certain anomalies. For one thing, skulls don't come with gemstones in the eye sockets. Someone has added those later, they won't grow there naturally, you know. The other thing is that this skull appears to have a sparse moustache. Like gemstones, facial hair is something that doesn't generally sprout from the skull itself. See, already this game is engendering a sense of mystery! I'm excited, I can't wait to see what the game is about and how the skulls with the John Waters facial topiary fit in. The skull appears to be guarding a set of pieces from Connect Four, so maybe it's a lethal take on that classic children's game.


I'll be honest, that hasn't really answered any of my questions. I'll try moving around a bit, maybe that'll help.


Oh hey, it's a 3D maze game. Well, that's good to know and is hardly surprising - the 3D maze game seems to be one of the most common types of ZX Spectrum game. I know that's probably not true and there are far more games in the "extremely basic platformer" or "hellish descent into one man's madness" genres, but that's how it feels to me. Think ZX, think wire-frame labyrinths full of... full of what?


Treasure, in Skull's case. The Connect 4 counters that I mentioned earlier are actually gold and bronze coins, and from what I can tell of the scale, they're coins with a diameter of about a foot. That's a lot of gold, so it's no wonder that our hero came down here. There are keys, which give you points as well as working as, quelle surprise, keys, and there are neon-green crosses that also give you points.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it - and I suggest you do accept it because the only alternative is to curl up into a ball and await your inevitable death - is to raid this blank-walled labyrinth of modernist architecture and avail yourself of the treasures contained within.


The maze isn't only made up of plain white walls, and there are a few architectural features that'll keep you on your toes. Sometimes a portcullis will block your way, and you have to use a key to open them. This costs, as you might expect, one key to use, but it also removes seven points from your score. I have no idea why, but my current theory is that whatever sadistic bastards dropped you into this maze are not impressed that you managed to get yourself stuck behind a gate, and they are deducting points from the scorecard of their mad, twisted game.


Wait, what was that? Hmm, well, I'm sure it was nothing.
Other the other main pitfalls you'll encounter are actual pitfalls, a fancy term for "hole." Some holes are uncovered, and stepping onto them will cause you to fall down to the next level and lose a life in the process. Some holes have trapdoors over the top, which may or may not give way when you walk over them.


Pictured here: a bronze coin not worth taking the risk over. According to the instructions, the trapdoors have a one-in-five chance of opening and plunging you to your grisly end, but in the game I'm either extremely unlucky or the likelyhood is much higher because seemingly every time I gambled, I ended up one life down. The only way to safely get to... hold on, I heard something...


Must have been my imagination. Anyway, to safely move to the next level, you have to find the ladder. Take the ladder down, harvest as much treasure as you can, find the ladder on that level and repeat. That's it. That is the totality of Skull's concept, and there's really nothing else for you to oh god don't move.


As long as I stay perfectly still, the hovering skull will be unable to detect my presence.


Oh shit, no, that's dinosaaaargh!
You see, the skull was so terrifying that just to look upon it caused my forehead to explode. That's how the skull killed me without actually touching me, causing blood to cascade down over my eyes.
Yes, my sudden death has revealed the shocking truth behind Skull: it has skulls in it! Six-foot-tall hovering ones with rubies for eyes, skulls with a fondness for peeking shyly around corners, skulls that relentlessly pursue you through this endless maze. Okay, that last bit's not true - they don't do much active pursuing, they just kind of float around a bit like the new kid who's just been forced into a playground game of football and doesn't have the confidence to really get involved.


They're not just any disembodied floating skulls, either - they must be vampiric disembodied floating skulls, because they're scared of crosses. The crosses are Skull's equivalent for Pac-Man's power pellets, and picking up a crucifix will temporarily make the skulls vulnerable. You can tell when a skull's vulnerable, because it will have gems in its eye sockets. Gems that would look great in the collection of a treasure hunter such as yourself... and once you've collected a cross you can indeed run up to the skull and steal its eyes. This adds to your score, destroys the skull and scores you a nomination for the "Ballsiest Adventurer" category at this year's Dungeon Explorer Awards.


That counter at the bottom of your treasure list? That's how many eyes you've harvested. As videogame stats go, it definitely beats things like "experience points" and "magic defence" and other such metrics, which now seem so pointlessly banal.
Those are the skulls, unsurprisingly the best feature in a game called Skull and pretty much the entire reason I wanted to write about this game in the first place. There's just something cool about them, an enemy that comes from a traditionally "spooky" background but which also has the unsettling strangeness of being huge, hovering and totally silent. It seems almost a callback to Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and its enormous helmet, intended to connect this wireframe explore-em-up to the dawning of the Gothic literature movement. Sorry, no it doesn't, I mean to say that giant floating skulls are a) cool and b) metal as hell.


While the head-bones are undoubtedly the most memorable part of Skull, the game itself does a few things to lift itself above most of its first-person dungeon-exploring peers. The map is handled nicely - it's displayed at the start of each new level, but it quickly begins to crumble to dust and will soon be gone. You can spend those first few moments trying to memorise it, but if that doesn't work you can always spend 25 points to reveal it again. Or I suppose you could do what I did and blindly stumble from corridor to corridor, hoping to find a ladder but more often falling though a trapdoor.
You also have a skull-sensor to warn you of impending bony doom. It's the charm bracelet - I'm not being facetious, that's what it's called in the instructions - at the bottom left, with each skull in the maze represented by a charm on the chain. If the skulls are cyan then you're relatively safe (I say relatively, because I believe I've already mentioned the bloody trapdoors) but as the skulls draw near they change colour, with red meaning that the skull is right next to you, ready to pounce, Or, if you've picked a cross, ready to have its eyes removed. It's a safety device and a hunting tool!


Technically, Skull is an impressive achievement. The screen is redrawn quickly, movement is a smooth and the randomly-generated levels are almost always mazey enough to be interesting but not completely baffling or unsolvable. Once or twice I did get stuck when a portcullis closed behind me and locked me in a dead end, and that is definitely irritating, but if you can make it past the first two or three floors without that happening then you should have enough keys to see you through.
Skull's big problem is its simplicity. Collect treasure, descend through the levels, get the highest score you can. That's all there is to do. I know that's how a lot of games worked back then, but to get a high score on a game like Galaga or Donkey Kong you needed two things: memorisation and skill. Neither of these things will help you in Skull, because of the random nature of the game, so if you do set a high score you feel like you're beating the odds rather than beating the game.


The furthest I managed to get without cheating was floor eight. In theory you could reach the end of the game - the manual says that Skull consists of 9,999 levels - but that's not really an option. You die a lot, for one thing, and with only four lives and no way to replenish them that's a big limiting factor. Also, I died right at the ladder at the end of stage eight, so let's say I cleared it. To reach that point took me four minutes and thirty seconds. If my maths is right, and there's a considerable chance it's not, at that rate of progress it'd take me roughly 93 and three-quarter hours to reach the end of Skull. Time is precious, dear reader, and four days of it should not be sacrificed to Skull. Only small children and effigies of the Unnameable Dark Gods should receive that honour.


I enjoyed it, though. Not enough to keep at it for long, but enough that I took more pleasure from it than just seeing those skulls. They are pretty great, though, and as I'm missing Hallowe'en already seeing a jewel-eyed skull peering out, half-concealed, from behind the wall of an endless labyrinth fills me with a degree personal pleasure that might make me sound a bit weird. Really, what else can you ask from a 28-year-old computer game?

2 comments:

  1. This sounds brilliant - and I really didn't know about the "not moving" bits of 3D Monster Maze, I've always just tried to run away!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh, man, this game would be a really good choice for a Let's Play...

    ReplyDelete

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