Eight Bit Adventurer

Not all those who wander are lost…


Down these mean streets, a duck must waddle…

Sam Mallard loading screen

Sam Mallard loading screen

Sam Mallard – subtitled The Case of the Missing Swan – is something more than a bit different by way of an adventure game for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. A noir-esque, menu-driven graphical adventure in black and white, where you play a fedora-wearing duck.

It’s also pretty much brand, spanking new by Spectrum standards, having been released online on World of Spectrum, where you can download it for free, in August 2016. However, you can now also buy it on cassette – with added goodies!

Fans of old-school detective/gangster movies (like me) will find themselves immediately at home with this short but sweet outing into Humphrey Bogart-style adventuring, albeit as a, dare I say it, duck-tective. You are Sam Mallard, the eponymous anti-hero, and as usual you are still in your office late at night when, the clock having turned midnight, you get a knock on the door and a Mr. Swan, owner of the Swanline Shipping Co., tells you all about how his wife, Edith, has disappeared, and the police aren’t being helpful. Can you track her down? As an incentive, he offers a grand up front if you can find his wife by morning, no questions asked. You might well be suspicious about this, but with a shortage of clients queuing up to hand over a wad of smackeroos, you’re not going to ask questions, are you?

Sam Mallard - on the road

Sam Mallard – on the road

One thing I particularly love about this game is the look: it’s just like an old-school black and white Apple Mac adventure from the 1980s, albeit lower res. Screen layout offers an action menu to the upper left, graphics to the right of that and a text window at the bottom of the screen. Controls are simple: you can use a Kempston joystick, or the Q and A keys (up and down) plus spacebar (select). You don’t even have to type anything in. This means the ‘vocabulary’ is very limited.

Sam Mallard - my office

Sam Mallard – my office

The 48k Spectrum cassette version comes as a super little package, with a Sam Mallard badge and card, instructions, and even a mini-CDR so you can run the game on a Windows PC via emulator, or copy it onto an SD card. However, the game also ran perfectly via FUSE on my Mac Pro by double clicking on the sammallard.tap file in the Resources folder.

Sam Mallard - harbor

Sam Mallard – harbor

This atmospheric and easy-to-play outing into the world of duck-noir is not just for the birds. It would be a great intro to adventuring for anyone who hasn’t played such a game before or who hasn’t hours to spare. If you’re a collector, the money for the cassette package is well spent. Highly recommended.


The game is easy to operate, short but with a few head-scratchers along the way.  It’s atmospheric and fun. Lack of colour is no loss, quite the opposite. Presentation is simple but well laid out. A great package if you buy the cassette.

Sam Mallard – The Case of the Missing Swan is, quite simply, duck-tastic! If you love old noir movies, you’ll love this.

Review copy kindly supplied by Monument Microgames: http://www.monumentmicrogames.com/

A version of this review was originally published in the Crash Annual 2018 from Fusion Retro Books.

An issue 2 1982 ZX Spectrum 48K (Bill Bertam - Wikipedia)

For my next EIGHT BIT ADVENTURER column, for EIGHT BIT magazine issue 5, I’ve penned Begin Adventuring with a Sinclair Spectrum, which is an introductory feature for anyone thinking of taking up computer adventure gaming for the first time, or looking to relive fond memories of past quests for fortune and glory.

ZX Spectrum 128 'Toastrack' (Wikipedia)

ZX Spectrum 128 ‘Toastrack’ (Wikipedia)

If either of these applies to you, unless you are already committed to a particular home micro, there is a great deal to be said for beginning your journey through the exciting, fun and challenging world of text and graphic adventures with the very affordable, undeniably quirky, but justifiably famous Sinclair ZX Spectrum as your companion, especially as there are many different models of Spectrum you can buy second-hand – and most importantly, masses of Spectrum adventures are freely available!  It’s also a great focus for collecting, as second-hand hardware and software are easy to find.

Heroes of Karn loading screen (Interceptor Software)

Heroes of Karn loading screen (Interceptor Software)

A phenomenally popular eight bit British home computer of the 1980s, the much-beloved ZX Spectrum was created by Sinclair Research, headed by the legendary, if a little eccentric, Sir Clive Sinclair (aka ‘Uncle Clive’), and was later also manufactured by Sinclair’s rival, Alan Sugar’s Amstrad. Getting started in Spectrum adventuring is the theme of this particular article.

Amstrad ZX Spectrum +2 grey (Stuart Brady - Wikipedia)

Amstrad ZX Spectrum +2 grey (Stuart Brady – Wikipedia)

The ‘Speccy’, as it became fondly known to its millions of original users, had the advantage of being one of the cheapest colour home computers (hence the name) of its day, with a Z80 processor, a cheap storage system (audio cassette), and a useful amount of RAM memory for the time (from 16k-128k, but generally 48k). All that was required for a video display was an ordinary television set.

Such was the Spectrum’s popularity that it came to be sold everywhere in the UK, both by specialist computer shops and mainstream High Street retailers, and it created an industry which came to produce many thousands of software programs, particularly games, and whose influence is still felt today with our massive modern games industry standing on the shoulders of those past generations of developers.

The Balrog and The Cat (Zenobi Software)

The Balrog and The Cat (Zenobi Software)

Amongst those thousands of programs produced for the Spectrum were many hundreds of great adventure games, both classic text adventures, and text and graphics adventures, not to mention role-playing games. And most of those games are still easily available today, either as collectable originals or free online downloads.

There is even still a small, but growing, cottage industry of homebrew developers still making new games for the Spectrum, though you won’t find their products in W.H. Smiths anymore, sadly!

Twin Kingdom Valley loading screen (Bug Byte)

Twin Kingdom Valley loading screen (Bug Byte)

But whether you are a newcomer to adventure gaming, or an old hand, where should you start today if you fancy taking a Speccy on your quest? Do you dive in feet-first and buy an old computer, assuming you don’t already have a Spectrum up in your loft? Or try out software-based machine emulation on your Mac, PC or Linux machine?

And if you do decide to go for the full-on retro adventuring experience, which Sinclair Spectrum should you buy, what accessories might you need, where can you find games – and how do you begin? Well, if you’re a reader of Eight Bit magazine, you can begin with issue 5!

See: http://www.eightbitmagazine.com/ for magazine pre-order details.

Stuart Williams


Adventure Trail banner, courtesy Crash Annual 2018

I’m sorry that it’s a been a while since I last posted on this blog, but thankfully the good news is that this is not just because I’ve been snoring away in front of the cauldron, but because there’ve been a lot more exciting things bubbling up here at ye olde Wizard’s Tower than eye of newt since the end of November!

Adventure Trail banner, courtesy Crash Annual 2018

Adventure Trail banner, courtesy Crash Annual 2018

Firstly, there’s been the publication just before Christmas of my first Stuart Williams’s Adventure Trail column, wearing my pointy hat as Adventure Editor, in the new Crash Annual 2018 for Sinclair ZX Spectrum fans, from Fusion Retro Books. Thankfully, Adventure Trail has been well-received, so I was able to breathe a sigh of relief, and the whole book is absolutely fantastic, so I can’t recommend it too highly.

Then, after a debilitating attack of wizard-flu over the festive season, there was more writing which I needed to complete for my next column in Eight Bit magazine issue 5, so there’s been even more to do!  Now, more good news is that I’ve been invited to not only continue as Adventure Editor for the 2019 Crash Annual, with more space no less, but also to take on the same role for the all-new ZZap! 64 Annual for Commodore 64 enthusiasts!

ZZap! 64 Annual logo

And, yet another thing, as some of you reading this may know, I used to write for the late, much lamented Amiga User International magazine, which closed back in 1997.  Well, I’ve now launched a new Amiga User International website in tribute to the print magazine, which will combine features from both AUI and Commodore Computing International with new articles and news on the retro Amiga scene. If you’re a Commodore Amiga fan, please do check it out!  There’s a lot more to do there as well as on this blog, so I’m going to be busy for a long time to come.

AUI website banner

In any case, dear reader, I’m back, at least for a while, and you can expect a few updates, especially after Eight Bit magazine issue 5 is published (real soon now)!

As usual, watch this space!

More anon,

Stuart Williams


Stuart Williams' Apple IIe running ‘The Hobbit' from 5.25" floppy disk

Or, of early adventure games, and how to go adventuring on your Apple II today

Many are familiar with the concept of the computer text adventure game, or work of ‘interactive fiction’; they may even have played such a game when they were much younger, in the early days of home computing – the late 1970s to 1980s – when they may have had fun loading them up off cassette with a Sinclair Spectrum, a BBC Micro, a Commodore 64, an Amstrad, a Dragon or even an MSX.

But many of the first commercially available adventure games, indeed some of the very first available on a microcomputer instead of a mainframe or minicomputer, were actually initially introduced on the now-scarce Tandy TRS-80 Model I, the Commodore Pet 2001, or the rather easier to find Apple II range. And even today, for those wanting to go adventuring like in the “good old days”, there is much to be said for turning to the classic Apple eight-bit machines once again, and truly seminal games like Adventureland, Zork I and Mystery House, from which all else follows on.

What’s in an adventure game?

Adventures were some of the very first games to be played on computers, with Colossal Cave Adventure (often known simply as Adventure) being developed for mainframes and minicomputers as far back as 1975-6. The whole point of the game was to present the player with a story within a digital world with which he or she could interact, solve puzzles in, progress through and, well, have an adventure!

Because those early scientific or business-oriented computers didn’t use bit-mapped graphics, the first games, and many of those created for early home computers, were entirely text or character-based, and before the advent of VDU (video display) terminals, game progress would actually be printed out on a teletype machine or line printer. This made text adventure games ideal for converting to the earliest home computers, with minimal or relatively crude graphics by modern standards. They also required relatively little memory to run in, and could be stored on tape cassette or the relatively low capacity floppy disk drives of the day.

The adventurer’s tale

Adventure games are also known as ‘interactive fiction’, since their object is for the player to take part in and influence a fictional story by exploring within the game, making choices, picking up and using objects, solving puzzles and, in the more sophisticated games, even interacting with other, computer-generated characters in the story.

Typically, as you might expect given the geeky nature of computer gaming, fantasy, science fiction, horror and crime, and variations on these tropes, tend to be the most popular themes for adventure game storylines, but almost any subject can lend itself to the genre.

In the beginning
Colossal Cave Adventure running on a PDP-11/34, displayed on the minicomputer's VT100 serial terminal (COURTESY Autopilot/Wikipedia)

Colossal Cave Adventure running on a PDP-11/34, displayed on the minicomputer’s VT100 serial terminal (COURTESY Autopilot/Wikipedia)

The very first adventure game was Colossal Cave Adventure, often referred to simply as Adventure, Colossal Cave, or ADVENT. Colossal Cave was developed in 1976 by Will Crowther, for the 36-bit DEC PDP-10 mainframe computer. This game is the great, great grandfather of all the adventure games which followed. And as you might expect, variations on it were among the very first games to appear on the Apple II range. Continue reading

Whether you are an adventurer bold, looking for a fellow wanderer to join you on your quest, or you simply haven’t a clue, and are looking for one, welcome to the first post of my new blog for fans of retro adventure gaming, Eight Bit Adventurer, which launches today!

Here, I plan to write about adventure games past and present, as well as current adventure news, for users of those eight-bit home computers which were the first affordable home of ‘interactive fiction’ – software programs better known by many as text adventures, or stories in which the computer user could actually intervene and play a critical role in defeating evil, solving a mystery, exploring – or just grabbing as much treasure as possible!

This blog had its very first incarnation on my, currently mothballed, website Retro Computing News. The good news is that, by the time RCN was put into stasis for personal reasons, Eight Bit Adventurer had already been accepted for regular print publication in Eight Bit magazine by the editor, John Kavanagh, for which I was very grateful as it meant there would be another readership for, and indeed a permanent record of, my spidery web-scribblings – on paper.  What could be more retro than that?

Now, that printed column will be complemented by this online equivalent, with both formats sharing content as appropriate. Some pieces will appear first in the column in Eight Bit, others will show up here online first, notably any timely news.  There will be significant crossover between the two, but not everything I explore will appear in both.  Hopefully this will offer an incentive for you, dear reader, to keep up with both magazine and blog.

Title screen from 'Adventure' for the Apple II, 1980

Title screen from ‘Adventure’ for the Apple II, 1980

To quote Graham Cunningham’s first November 1983 Editorial in the much-missed Micro Adventurer magazine, which in part inspired both blog and column:

“For those of you who have never ventured into the realm of computer adventures before, they consist of a series of intricate puzzles. The puzzles themselves are set in worlds of myth and imagination, ranging from J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit through any number of elves, dwarves and trolls, to deserted castles and vast alien space ships. Most adventures have some central aim, either a princess to be rescued or some treasure to be collected, but much of the fun lies in exploring the world created by the programmer.”

And that, indeed, is the main purpose of Eight Bit Adventurer – to help me, and hopefully others, explore those many worlds of the multiverse which were created in past computer adventures, and also those ‘worlds within’ of the new games which have been created, and are still being created, in more recent years when the use of home computers long considered obsolete by the mundane and the mainstream has become one of the most fascinating hobbies for computer historians, collectors and retro gamers alike. Continue reading