1992: The Last Great Year of 8-Bit Computing

Remembering the commercial twilight era of the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and Amstrad CPC

1992 was a strange yet eventful year in British home computing. The Sega Mega Drive rose in popularity, the NES was replaced by the 16-bit SNES in many homes. In Dear Old Blighty, there were two factors which delayed their supremacy (for another year at least). One was the recession. Another was the dominant home computer market. Former C64 users were just as likely to plump for an Amiga, which led to 1993 being some sort of a memorable year for Jay Miner’s wonder machine. The console may have been an extra, filed under ‘nice to have’.

For games consoles, 1992 meant the NES or Mega Drive taking prime position. The Nintendo Gameboy was the ‘must have’ handheld and the reasons were obvious compared with their rivals. The Sega Game Gear ate too many Duracells and the Atari Lynx was far from pocket friendly and ate batteries for fun. The Watara Supervision (repackaged as the Quickshot Supervision on these shores) had no games, and stank of ‘me tooism’ alongside the Gameboy.

On the productivity side, word processing and other home computer type stuff was done on ‘serious PCs’. For example, Amigas, Atari STs, Amstrad PCWs, and BBC Micros. The IBM Compatible PC was an exception rather than the norm in most households. (This would change in 1995). In spite of this perception, some people did their home accounts on Commodore 64s (for example, using Berkeley Softworks’ WIMP operating system, GEOS) or typed letters with a ZX Spectrum (for instance with Tasword).

The start of 1992 followed what was the last great Christmas for 8-bit computer sales. In Christmas 1991, a glut of C64GS cartridges would be bundled with Commodore 64Cs under the Playful Intelligence pack. On the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad’s Sinclair Spectrum +2s were bundled as part of a James Bond gift pack. This included a light gun, handy for Operation Wolf. The C64’s equivalent was the Light Fantastic pack, which included four exclusively programmed games for the light gun. It was also bundled with a rerelease of The Shoot ‘Em Up Construction Kit, Sensible Software’s seminal utility.

Commercially, 1992 was a good year for the Commodore 64. Though with fewer full price games than, say in 1987, there was a buoyant budget market. This was true with the Speccy and the Amstrad though not to as great an extent as the C64. The ZX Spectrum saw a marked decline, with no new models since 1987. For Speccy owners, it was hoped that the Sam Coupé by Miles Gordon Technology would be a successor, due to its fantastic – non-colour-clashing graphics – and backwards compatibility with ZX Spectrum titles.

Shortly after its launch, MGT went into administration with few units sold. Another company, Sam Computers Ltd, revived the wedge-shaped machines, and went bust in 1992. Commodore and Amstrad were licking their wounds from ill thought-out games consoles – the C64GS and the GX4000 – based on existing 6510 and Z80A processing units.

Both manufacturers continued to produce home computers till 1993. Amstrad’s approach were the CPC Plus range of 464s, 664s, and 6128s – the same machines though with some extra graphical pizazz and smarter cases (plus Alan Sugar needed to get rid of some GX4000 joypads). Commodore persisted with the C64C with one masterstroke being the Terminator 2 pack. There was even rumours of a new C64 successor known as the C65 (which could be a future East of the M60 blog post).

So, what other factors made Christmas 1991 a good one for the 8-bit scene? The main one was 8-bit computers being handed down to younger siblings. Hence the rise of budget games and titles aimed at younger gamers.

The Magazine Scene

In 1992, the must-have 8-bit magazine was Future Publishing’s Commodore Format. Its launch in September 1990 baffled industry commentators but they were proved wrong in ’92. That year saw the mag gain a circulation of over 60,000 readers. What industry commentators didn’t foresee was the impact of Newsfield’s liquidation in late 1991. As a result, Your Sinclair and Amstrad Action thrived.

Eventually, the former Newsfield titles (Zzap! 64 and Crash) returned to our newsagents under new ownership – as Europress Direct. March 1992 saw a change in tone for Zzap! 64 – it became a less authoritative and more irreverent title aimed at teenage gamers. It was heavy on the innuendo count and virtually unrecognisable from the Zzap! 64 edited by Gordon Houghton and Roger Kean before then. Crash saw a similar rebranding, but the end of this year saw the title gobbled up by arch-rivals Sinclair User.

More than most, the ZX Spectrum magazines saw a greater drop in the page count, due to the fall in software sales. Increasingly, they became an A4 inlay sheet for a cover-mounted cassette. After Zzap! 64’s ill-advised change of direction, the close of 1992 saw the magazine rebranded and renamed as Commodore Force.

1992 also saw the arrival and departure of Lime Lizard’s Commodore Power, a brash magazine which had its roots in Your Commodore. The title only lasted for four months. EMAP’s Commodore User tied its mast to the Amiga cause, morphing into CU Amiga.

In the 8-bit era, critical and cogent reviewing alone didn’t guarantee sales. Across the big three 8-bit formats, it was the cover-mounted cassette.

Cover-Mounted Cassettes

In the United Kingdom, almost every 8-bit computer owner saved their work onto, or played games on, cassette tapes. With floppy disc drives costing almost as much as the computer (Commodore’s 1541 Disc Drive being a notable example), a portable cassette recorder was considerably cheaper. Commodore’s C3N Datasette retailed for £29.99 including 17.5% VAT and plugged into the back of a C64, C128, C128D, or C64C. They also stopped the tape for you. With a bog-standard portable deck from Argos or WHSmith, Spectrum owners had to stop the tape on seeing on-screen prompts.

Affordability was a driving force behind the popularity of cover mounted cassettes. Given the choice of £3.99 for a budget game or £2.20 with a free game, magazine, and a few demos, there was no contest. The full games would be an older title which may have been deleted of late. Or they could be a free contemporary Public Domain title from a PD library like Binary Zone.

A preview of a contemporary release would usually comprise of a single level. For example, part of the first and only level of Zeppelin Games’ Arnie. At Christmas, there would be a second tape stuck to the magazine. By the end of 1992, the stakes were upped when Commodore Force started issuing two tapes a month.

A typical cover-mounted cassette running order:

  • Side A, Full Game: Dandy (Electric Dreams, 1987);
  • Side A, Demo: World Class Rugby (Audiogenic, 1991);
  • Side B, Playable Demo: Elvira, The Arcade Game (Flair, 1991);
  • Side B, Full Game: Equinox (Mikro-Gen, 1987).

Looks familiar? This was the exact running order of Commodore Format’s Power Pack for Issue 15. Each magazine had a different name for their cover-mounted cassettes. Zzap! 64’s was the Megatape; its successor’s version was Reel Action. If you were one of the few 8-bit computer owners to have a floppy disk drive, some magazines enabled you to send off for a disk version (as CF did with their Tape to Disk scheme after Issue 19).

The Games

1992 was the last year to see a substantial number of full price 8-bit games. By the end of 1993, all of the major publishers ceased supporting the 8-bit formats. The last budget-priced games from the major software houses dried up a year later. Autumn 1994 saw the last full price release from a commercial publisher for the C64: Psygnosis’ Lemmings.

Across the formats, there was a vibrant budget scene. As well as rereleases of older titles (on, for example, Ocean Software’s Hit Squad label), the Zeppelin and Alternative software houses were putting out new releases. Some had tried and failed – for example the Beyond Belief software label, responsible for Jimmy’s Soccer Manager. Football management sims were still pretty big with the niche carved out by Cult Software and D+G Games (again at pocket money prices).

Occupying the longest stay at the Number One spot of the ELSPA chart (European Leisure Software Publishers’ Association) was Zeppelin’s Arnie. A labour of love by Chris Butler (also known for Power Drift and Turbocharge on the C64), it was a single level military themed shoot-em-up in the Commando mould. The main difference was its isometric viewpoint. It was successful enough to spawn a sequel in 1993, known as Arnie 2. This had two levels, a similar perspective, and was coded by Zeppelin’s in-house developers.

Full Price Titles

Some of ’92’s full price schedule was affected by the demise of Mirrorsoft and Image Works, following the death of its owner, Robert Maxwell. In the end, the rights of the affected titles were transferred to Acclaim. One casualty was Vivid Images’ First Samurai, the subject of a single level demo on Commodore Format‘s Power Pack (Issue 17). Gaining fantastic reviews in Zzap! 64 and Commodore Format, its release was delayed till 1993.

Movie tie-ins and coin-op conversions remained popular. Ocean Software brought us Taito’s Operation Wolf meets Aliens shooter, Space Gun – which was one of the last cartridge games for the C64. Also on that format was Robocop 3, which was released on cartridge too. With music by Jeroen Tel and Operation Wolf style gameplay it was a good blast. In 16-bit land, Robocop 3 was a 3D shooter.

The limitations of the 8-bits and the bigger games demanded at the time were painfully tangible. On the ZX Spectrum, full price titles for the 48k version were spurned in favour of their 128k siblings. Hence later titles like Nigel Mansell’s World Championship Racing and Streetfighter 2 only being available for 128k users. This also meant greater use of multiload techniques – where each level meant another two minutes of waiting time.

In 1992, Ocean Software’s biggest film licence was The Addams Family. Another arcade adventure platformer, albeit in flickscreen form, it had colourful graphics on both the CPC 6128 and C64/C128 versions. Though Commodore Format gave The Addams Family an It’s A Corker rating, Zzap! 64 weren’t too impressed with co-reviewer Ian ‘Stain’ Osborne decrying its high difficulty curve and multiload.

The latter was true of US Gold/Millennium Software’s playable yet slightly sluggish James Pond II: Robocod. Fitting the guts and the belly of the 16-bit smash was half the battle, but some compromises had to be made due to the Commodore 64’s limitations. The multiload on the tape version was lengthy though not to the gut-wrenching proportions you have with Turbo Outrun. The Birmingham-based publisher also delivered us Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, an isometric arcade adventure film tie-in. There was one problem: the film wasn’t released.

Another coin-op licence scheduled for release was the long-awaited Parasol Stars. A follow-up to the excellent Rainbow Islands, it was slated for release in Summer 1992. It was originally going to be bundled with James Pond II: Robocod in what would have been Commodore’s last C64 pack – with a new 1541-II disc drive. The programmer’s source code disk was mislaid with the disk featuring a complete version destroyed – by his wife. (The excellent GTW64 website has the full story).

Fairing much better on the Commodore 64 was Thalamus’ Nobby The Aardvark, an original platform game featuring an aardvark. In the magazines of the day, it was seen as a good 8-bit swansong for the label. For its developers, Genesis Software, it was a full price hit, though one that may have got a better reception, say two years earlier. Quality rather than quantity was true of Thalamus that year, with the start of 1992 opening with Creatures 2. Needless to say, there was favourable reviews in the computer magazines of the day. The graphics still look ace 24 years on.

With 1992 being shaped by the Summer and Winter Olympic Games, and the European Championships in Sweden, this meant the usual glut of sports games. For the 8-bit computers, slim pickings. As a tribute to Gary Lineker’s retirement from international football, budget label Kixx released a compilation of his football games. Entitled The Lineker Collection, the four game compilation had Italy 1990, Gary Lineker’s Hotshot, Gary Lineker’s Superstar Soccer, and Gary Lineker’s Superskills.

There was also Mega Sports, a repackaging of the legendary Epyx multi-event simulators. In other words, The Games: Winter and Summer editions, the original Summer Games and its sequel (Summer Games II), and Winter Games. As for new games cashing in on the competitions, nothing whatsoever. Tynesoft’s Summer Olympiad and Winter Olympiad also marked the games – another two rereleases though.

In the middle of our Venn diagram of Sports Games and North East England software houses was Zeppelin Games’ full price imprint, Zeppelin Premier. With the cream of English football forming the F.A. Premier League, this meant the return of an old favourite to our TV screens: Match of the Day. After gaining the licence for software based on other BBC television programmes, the Houghton-le-Spring based software house created an icon-driven management simulator. There was match highlights with all the manager’s decisions made on a Filofax.

For the 8-bit computing scene, 1992 was almost a last hurrah for commercial software houses issuing full price games. Though Ocean Software had pencilled in a few more releases for the C64, Robocop 3 was the Manchester-based software house’s final game for the ZX Spectrum.

Budget Games

 

Even with the commercial demise of 8-bit computing in sight, the budget scene thrived off rereleases and original games. The leading lights of the scene were Zeppelin, Alternative, and Codemasters.

For Zeppelin Games, Arnie was the company’s runaway success on the C64. Other titles released that year included Championship 3D Snooker, World Cricket, and The Bod Squad. The first title had the snooker table shown in first person perspective with a plan view shown for lining your shots. It was a success across all three main 8-bit formats. This followed up a similar pool simulator, American 3D Pool, which was released in 1991.

With the Cricket World Cup fresh in the memory that year, World Cup Cricket was one of many sporting games the budget softie released in ’92. Its icon-driven approach had a similar look and feel to Kenny Dalglish’s Soccer Manager. Reviews of the day were far from complementary due to its tedium and execution. Graeme Souness’ Soccer Manager – same engine as the aforementioned titles – faired better in the reviewers’ eyes.

For the second part of 1992, sports simulators was Zeppelin’s forte: there was also Graeme Souness International Soccer with Sensible Soccer style graphics. International Tennis released later in 1992 was well received with a choice of three courts. At the end of the game, the losing competitor threw the racket onto the court. All-American Basketball (using the excrement brown colour of the C64’s palette) lacked speed and had poor reviews. Plus it used the same perspective as International 5-a-Side and International Ice Hockey (both titles were savaged by the magazines of the day).

With cutesy graphics, The Bod Squad was Zeppelin’s Egyptian-themed platformer. The only thing which could have made the game an all-round classic was improved controls. Getting Bod to jump was truly frustrating.

The same couldn’t have been said about one of Codemasters’ platform games. Using a similar formula to CJ’s Elephant Antics and CJ in the USA was DJ Puff’s Volcanic Capers. In the game, Puff the dragon’s quest was to save his record collection. He did so by collecting discs along the way. Across the formats, the Dizzy franchise remained popular. As well as via the Dizzy’s Excellent Adventures compilation, Bubble Dizzy and Dizzy Down the Rapids gained stand alone releases. The former was a graphically competent Underwurlde clone whereas the latter was inspired by Toobin.

As for the classic Dizzy adventures, Dizzy: Prince of the Yolk Folk reigned supreme. By the end of 1992, the ovoid character’s swansong would be marked by Crystal Kingdom Dizzy. Other diversions from the ovoid form included a boost for the Seymour franchise. This included the Bombjack clone, Super Seymour. Seymour Supercop brought the gameplay of Atlantis Gold’s Cops and Robbers to a new audience though with considerably better graphics. Stuntman Seymour played the CJ Elephant Antics card, and had some excellent reviews in spite of its lack of originality. Big Nose’s American Adventure also reprised the CJ engine.

For David Darling’s company, the close of 1992 would see the release of Steg the Slug, an original slug-themed adventure. Which – would you believe – was the name of a cheat code for one of the Seymour games. Retreading the Dizzy engine were Seymour Goes to Hollywood and Wild West Seymour. The reviews across all formats were indifferent. Also panned by the reviewers were Captain Dynamo and Stryker in the Crypt of Trogan.

Even so, they were nothing on some of the savage reviews that Alternative Software’s Doctor Who licence received. Entitled Dalek Attack, the Pontefract-based company’s platformer had low ratings across all formats. 16 bit as well as 8 bit. Released on its mid-priced imprint, Admiral Software, its learning curve was singled out for criticism. This was true with puzzler, Reckless Rufus. Reviews were more complementary with good graphics along the three main eight bit formats.

Child-friendly TV tie-ins remained big business for Alternative Software. 1992 saw the release of the third Postman Pat game. Postman Pat 3 offered gamers a top-down viewpoint a la Trashman. There was also a Popeye-theme wrestling simulator (entitled Popeye 3: WrestleCrazy). Which, in other words, was inspired by WWF Wrestlemania. Double Dare also had the Alternative treatment being a tie-in quiz with the gunge tank. The Children’s ITV cartoon series Bangers and Mash also had a cheap and cheerful platform game featuring the mischievous chimpanzees.

Filed under ‘real horror show’ – going off the reviews of that era was Count Duckula 2. For a time, it was one of the worse games to have graced (or disgraced?) the ZX Spectrum. Your Sinclair magazine was most scathing (9% it got). In February 1994, Commodore Format was similarly unimpressed and gave it – in a retrospective – 0%.

Also taking a similar piece of the action to Alternative and Zeppelin was Sheffield’s Hi-Tec software. Their forte was the Hanna Barbera themed games. These included platform games featuring Hong Kong Phooey, Daffy Duck, and Atom Ant. 1992’s roster included The Jetsons and Potsworth and Company. Both animated serials were aired on CBBC at the time. They also published the odd original game, for instance Turbo the Tortoise. Over three levels, it was a high speed turtle-themed push scrolling platform game with some good reviews to boot.

Though the game was ready for Christmas, Hi-Tec Software weren’t. The company went bust; some coders were left unpaid. By the following year, Codemasters picked up the game and released it as a stand alone budget title.

Making their 8-bit debut was Beyond Belief software whom in 1992 released two football management games: Jimmy’s Soccer Manager, and Jimmy’s Super League. The former had you managing The Mighty Poppies – yes, Kettering Town from the GM Vauxhall Conference (what’s up with Stalybridge Celtic?). There was also Devastating Blow (a boxing simulator) and Biff, an original monkey-themed flick screen platform romp.

1992’s selection of budget rereleases included the magnificent Turrican and Turrican II games on the C64. Midnight Resistance and Operation Thunderbolt were among The Hit Squad’s roster of rereleases across all formats.

Purchasing Games, 1992 Style

Back in ’92, purchasing games meant mail order ads in your favourite computer magazines. Being as we’re talking pre-internet era, this meant a wait for your 128k version of Chase HQ. The computer magazines were the main source of reference as was word of mouth among fellow C64/ZX Spectrum/Amstrad CPC users.

By 1992, shelf space in the multiple stores dwindled. Fewer 8-bit games were sold in places like WHSmith, Woolworths, and Boots. Local computer shops like VuData, Ace Computers and Stewarts Electronics in Ashton-under-Lyne briefly filled the void. To widen the availability of 8 bit and 16 bit titles, some computer retailers had a system known as EDOS. This stood for Electronic Distribution of Software – a bit like the print-on-demand book but legally copied from a computer to tape or floppy disk. Programmers got royalties in the same way they would have done from their original publisher.

What if you couldn’t afford the £3.99 or £10.99 for a game? Software piracy was another approach for the tight wads. This either meant getting one of your school friends to copy a game, or going to a market stall or car boot sale for hooky titles (like Turrican on a TDK C90). One legacy of this was the formation of FAST – the Federation Against Software Theft. Many remember the corny adverts in the computer mags of the day (I still do, and I could never find Bloggo’s Pow on the Lemon64 website – or on Ashton market).

The most affordable way of purchasing games in ’92 meant reading your favourite computer magazines and plumping for the cover-mounted tape. Another legal way was by means of joining a PD library. PD stands for Public Domain with games and demos done by coders for the love of their Commodore, Spectrum or Amstrad. At low prices, or sometimes in your favourite computer magazine. As the commercial scene began to dry up, the PD scene rose to prominence. Some, like Binary Zone PD, are still around today.

Towards 1993

The following year would see the beginning of the end of commercial 8-bit computing. As a consequence, magazines closed; software houses switched to the Amiga and games consoles. Even so, ’93 was a fascinating, if dispiriting year for C64, ZX Spectrum, and Amstrad CPC lovers. Benefiting from this were the PD libraries and user groups. Instead, the scene started going underground with a dedicated hardcore of users.

Though the Commodore 64’s commercial life continued till 1994, the ZX Spectrum’s was virtually dead by 1993. Your Sinclair would become the Speccy’s last magazine, a few months after the demise of Sinclair User. Amstrad Action and Commodore Format would cease publication in 1995 (June and October editions respectively).

If you’ve enjoyed this trip back to 1992, there might be a follow-up to this retrospective piece. Who knows?

S.V., 18 September 2016.

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