Like many reading this text, I was a child of Margaret Thatcher's 1980s, and my school was kitted out with BBC Micros, which were still in use until the early 90s when my High School had a new PC suite fitted. I think that they were all 386 machines, with a couple of Apples thrown in for good measure. But the endearing memory will always be the clunky-looking BBC micros; the machine the posh kids owned because their parents believed that it was a good idea for their children to have the same computer as the one in the classroom. As I was one of the few proud owners of a Commodore 64, one impression of the old Beeb that I had was that all of the software was basically rubbish and very uncool. Why? Because the sole purpose of the "games" on those floppy disks was to make me learn, something that I wasn't too keen on, as games should test your reactions and allow you to obliterate alien invaders and such like.
Now, if only games for that old BBC made you learn without realising it... like in Jonathan Cauldwell's Loco Bingo? You see, this game is more than just a simple 2D platform affair, as not only does it involve playing Bingo, something which would ordinarily get your grandmother excited, but quick mental arithmetic needs to be deployed whilst playing too. If that doesn't make much sense, and lets face it, this won't be the first time a Cauldwell game might confound its would-be player, let me explain further. Loco Bingo deals with a near future discovery of an unknown type of metal, called Sinclairium-256, found in a disused Venezuelan chocolate mine, of course. After much testing, this metallic substance is sought after by many train operating companies because it is strong, durable and cheap to produce. However, it's not long before problems are found with Sinclairium-256 - after a while it becomes tremendously and cataclysmicly unstable with a tendency to explode in left untouched. With this knowledge, the train companies auction their Sinclairium-based rolling stock off to the highest bidder - an online bingo company.
BLOW YOUR WHISTLE
In the auction was Chug Horncastle, an experimental self-aware Sinclairium-256 driverless locomotive, and his new owners put him to use on their satellite television channel. You play Chug in a new form of big-cash Bingo the company are trying to push onto the nation in order to compete with the big Lotto draw. With the other trucks numbered from one to ninety, the task in hand is to shunt them around each level to the specified point at the bottom of the screen. The corresponding numbers on the side of these trucks are then called in a giant interactive bingo game, and your card is shown on the top of the screen - put simply, you must get the numbers on the cart to match your card if you can. Matching an incorrect number will deduct 10 seconds from your time of five minutes, whilst clearing all of the numbers on the card will see you progress to the next level. Simple, isn't it?
Well, no it isn't. Whilst earlier levels may lull you into a false sense of security once you've learned the best way to shunt the rail trucks about, from "The Shunting Yard" onwards, things get a little difficult, then for a few levels a bit easier, and then difficult again. The further you progress, the more numbers you will need to match. Your winnings are shown on the top left-hand corner of the screen, and fast thinking needs to be deployed throughout. For instance, if two trucks are pushed together that total less than 90, they are added together to make a new, single cart. If they total more than 90, the two numbers are subtracted (naturally, the lowest number is taken away from the highest) except when the two numbers are equal to each other, in which case a random number is generated. This adds an element of luck to the proceedings, if you require 71 to progress to the next level and have little time left, dare you chance pushing together the two carts numbered 56? Or, will you wait in hope that number 71 will drop from the top of the screen?
Loco Bingo plays extremely well. The sound effects are simple and sparse, and there's sixteen whole levels to get through. Whilst there are some minor issues regarding the order in which the levels are set, this generally doesn't distract from what is a very good release. And it really did get my grey matter working enough to notice. Forgetting to carry the "one" is something that I did more times than I should admit, and it's certainly a whole lot more fun than sitting in a Bingo hall full of blue rinses and chattering dentures. So, Cauldwell has given Speccy fans the world's first "action Bingo" game that'll pass as an "Edutainment" software release that actually entertains too. Another world's first, methinks. A thoroughly recommended release.