Two derivative platform games, two towns east of the M60 motorway, and their role in the history of Sinclair ZX Spectrum gaming
In reference to 8 bit computer gaming, Greater Manchester is often associated with Ocean Software. At one time, the Manchester software house was the last name in 8 bit and 16 bit computer gaming with film tie-ins and arcade game conversions their forte. In 1982, they had modest beginnings with a bolt hole on Stanley Street, on the banks of the River Irwell. Within five years, they would absorb Imagine Software, the Liverpudlian software house who imploded following its ‘Mega Games’ concept and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. By 1987, they were among the big boys, alongside Birmingham’s US Gold, Microprose in Tetbury and Thalamus, a small up and coming software house bankrolled by Newsfield Publications, creators of Crash and Zzap! 64 magazines.
Starting out a few miles away were two software houses in the same conurbation. Both of which would later be connected by one coder, who would later produce Chuckie Egg. Neither of which would emulate the same success as Ocean Software, in spite of being formed around the same period.
Act One: Memo to Self: Never Get Kong Wrong:
Our story begins in Hyde, where attempts to establish a Silicon Valley along the banks of the River Tame were about as likely as Stalybridge Celtic lifting the European Cup. The year is 1981: unemployment reached 3 million, there were riots in Moss Side, and Hyde United lifted the Cheshire Senior Cup, beating their Cheshire County League rivals off the other Mottram Road. Elsewhere, Shirley Fenton and Richard Cheetham were fresh out of university and saw potential riches when Sir Clive Sinclair released the ZX81.
Whereas the ZX81 brought home computing to the masses, Sir Clive went one better with the ZX Spectrum. Sound and colour was available to anyone unable to afford the BBC Model B, which was a good £100 more than a ZX Spectrum. Cassette tapes formed its main storage, and a pair of earphone and microphone leads connected to a hi-fi or portable cassette recorder with treble and volume meant most homes could get a slice of the action.
In 1982, they formed C*Tech – or Control Technology, to give the software house its Sunday name. They started life as a mail order company with tapes shipped from their premises in Gee Cross. Expansion saw the couple move to a unit on 184 Market Street in the centre of Hyde. A further one was opened on 830 Hyde Road opposite Debdale Park, a mere 210 bus journey away.
Their roster included Polecat, a maze game where you played a rabbit searching for carrots, whilst avoiding the titular animal. There was versions of Frogger, Scramble, utility software for keeping on top of tax records and address, and – as if the 8 bit computer gaming world had had their fill of them – a Donkey Kong clone. Besides the ZX Spectrum, they also published software for the ZX81 and the Dragon 32.
The latter game, entitled Krazy Kong, would give computer gamers and reviewers most grief. In a September 1983 edition of Computer and Video Games, it formed the basis of a special feature entitled Great Software Disasters (sadly deleted). Over most part of 1983, the multi-format magazine’s letters pages were bombarded by issues concerning gameplay and its loading mechanism.
Let’s have a look at the evidence:
We begin with the inlay, which according to some is the best part of the game. In press, the game was advertised as being coded in machine code. On further examination, it was coded with ZX BASIC. Hence the lack of our favoured red and green raster lines, followed by the scream at 3/4 volume and our favoured yellow and blue raster lines. Hence the slow screen updating of the platforms courtesy of the PLOT and DRAW commands (which is all right for static images, but not arcade game conversions (and before you ask, it is still better than high resolution mode on the Commodore 64’s version of BASIC)). Shortcomings aside, it was C*Tech’s best selling title. Even so, there was still vented spleen in Sinclair User, C&VG et al, so much so that in the latter mag’s Great Software Disasters article, Ms Fenton threatened to pull all advertising from the computer press.
Unlike Ocean – and like the Liverpudlian company they took over, C*Tech as a separate entity didn’t see the whole of 1984. Their 184 Market Street premises is home to Pampered Pets which has more to dog grooming instead of clunky Commodore machines with built-in monitors. After the Krazy Kong debacle, subsequent releases saw some improvement. One of which was Rocket Raider, a Scramble clone coded by Nigel Alderton, whom at the time was fresh from doing his ‘O’ Levels aged 17. Two years from then, he would later code the much lauded Chuckie Egg and freelance for leading software house Elite.
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Act Two: Once Upon a Time in Newbold…
Two buses away from Control Tech HQ (as this is 1981, we would be looking at the 330, then the 400 or the 409), another British machine would form the genesis of a Rochdalian software house. As well as the ZX81 and ZX Spectrum, A&F Software would also carve out a niche with Acorn’s Atom and Electron machines, and its dearer academically inclined BBC Micro. Formed by Douglas Anderson and Michael Fitzgerald, they would later take on C*Tech’s Debdale Park showroom and support a wider range of machines besides the Cantabrigian quintet. Their headquarters was just outside the centre of Rochdale on an industrial estate in Newbold.
Integral to its success was Nigel Alderton. Prior to 1984, A&F Software’s roster included 180!, a darts simulator programmed in BBC BASIC. There was Painter, a paint-em-up inspired by Qix, and Planes, a Galaxians clone for the BBC. Over a school holiday, he coded what would later become A&F Software’s biggest seller: the famed Chuckie Egg.
Inspired by Space Panic, Donkey Kong and Loderunner, Chuckie Egg sees Hen House Harry collecting eggs whilst dodging chickens and ducks. It became a million seller across a variety of formats, from the ZX Spectrum (whence Alderton’s original came from) to the Commodore 64 and the Enterprise 128. It also saw airings on the Dragon 32 as well as the Acorn machines and the Amstrad CPC 464.
Furthermore, the money from Chuckie Egg enabled A&F Software to rebrand as A’n’F Software. Among their subsequent titles, Cylon Attack too was a good seller, thanks to the gimmick of a cash prize for completing the game. Even so, sales were stymied by software piracy as schoolchildren and ‘cracking firms’ who would copy games for their mates or illicit financial gain at car boot sales.
In 1986, A’n’F Software merged with M.C. Lothlorien, a company more famed for its strategy games instead of arcade action. They would assume the moniker Icon Design and leave Rochdale behind.
Even so, the Chuckie Egg saga wasn’t over. It spawned a sequel which was an arcade adventure rather than a traditional platformer. Chuckie Egg 2 lacked the static screens and the sound design of its former. Shortly after, Nigel Alderton would freelance for Elite Software in Birmingham and work on the ZX Spectrum coin-op conversion of Commando.
In 1988, another company – again based in Greater Manchester – would rerelease Chuckie Egg. Pick ‘n’ Choose, who had a base in Prestwich, reissued the 8 bit versions and released entirely new versions for the Atari ST, IBM Compatible PCs and the Amiga. Though graphics and sound were an improvement on the 1984 original, there were claims that the 16 bit versions lacked the playability.
In recent years, the popularity of mobile devices and smartphones for computer gaming also brought a new audience. Devotees of Hen House Harry’s attempts at collecting eggs are now suitably placated on even the most modest of colour mobile phones. Then there’s the number of unofficial versions, remakes and tributes, testament to the game’s popularity.
Finale: Your Recollections
Were you the proud owner of Chuckie Egg or Krazy Kong, or (if you had a ZX Spectrum) both titles? Did you work for, or with, Control Technology (C*Tech) or A&F Software? Feel free to comment away, and whatever you do, don’t wobble the RAM pack on my ZX81, or you’ll cop it…!
- World of Spectrum: softographies of C*Tech and A&F Software;
- Wings over Sealand: Stuart Campbell (ex-Amiga Power/Commodore Format) blog entry on Krazy Kong.
S.V., 25 April 2012.