As the only major gaming platform in history not designed to play games, the Spectrum was almost as famous for what it couldn't do as much as for Ultimate and Matthew Smith. Biggest of all of the Speccy's limitations was the attribute clash which prevented it from showing more than two colours in an 8-by-8 block of pixels. The methods programmers used to get round this handicap are almost as interesting as the games themselves. Don Priestley worked with larger sprites and cleverly designed backgrounds best seen in his 1986 classic Trap Door. With SplATTR, Bob Smith has taken Priestley's idea to the extreme, creating all the graphics out of 8-by-8 blocks thus making colour clash impossible. As a result, the sprites are huge multicoloured blocky things unlike anything else seen on the Spectrum (only the monochrome Ceefax-styled sprites in Rapscallion bear any resemblance). For sure, this ain't no Jet Set Willy clone.
While the graphics are unique, SplATTR's gameplay will be far more familiar to retro-fans. Just check out the blurb on the inlay card: "If it moves, shoot it. If it doesn't move, shoot it anyway. If it drains your energy, move!" This is a fire-into-the-screen style blaster, uncannily similar to a video game played on the old Saturday morning programme Going Live where kids directed a laser by verbal prompts down a telephone. Mercifully, that's where the comparison ends, though a stage in the game where you destroy giant Philip Schofield sprites in order to progress would have had great potential and undeniable appeal.
The player finds himself at the top of a grid of interlocking levels, and the aim is to travel through the grid stage by stage to reach the goal at the bottom. If you find yourself unable to clear a level, you can abort it and try a different route, much like we used to see contestants do on TV when struggling to answer questions in Blockbusters 'Gold Run'. The stages range from navigating simple mazes to out and out obliteration of everything on screen. The enemies you encounter are numerous: pacman ghosts, space invaders, giant wasps and even the grim reaper make an appearance. Luckily, a hint appears on each stage telling you what you have to do to complete it, and just as importantly, who to avoid.
PIXELATION, ITS WHAT YOU NEED!
Technically, this is another fantastic product. While it's a shame SplATTR is 128K only, the increased variety of stages is a real bonus, and the overall presentation seems to have gone up a notch too. The comprehensive options screen allows you to redefine keys, switch the backgrounds on or off as well as choose from three skill levels. The ever reliable Lee Du Caine gets his AY out and funks things up during the blasting action with another collection of fine tunes. And of course there's the amazing in-game graphics: they're almost obscenely colourful, and it takes time to get used to the sheer size of those massively pixellated sprites dominating the oh-so-small playing area on screen. The default choice on the menu is for the 'axis radar', and I found this option added to the confusion. The alternative 'map radar' option seems to work so much better- this gives the player a blue box with white dots representing the items needing to be shot to complete the stage, and with so little of the playing area visible, it's essential if you want to get anywhere.
After a couple of games, everything starts to make sense and SplATTR becomes more than just a great looking curiosity. Controlling the gun is easy, and once you've got used to the delay in a shot hitting the play area (you are firing into the screen remember), it becomes second nature. Soon I found myself really getting into this game; I never thought that blasting ultra-blocky psychedelic sprites could be so addictive.
Unfortunately, not long afterwards I completed it! I trounced the Normal level on my second day of playing and then finished it on Hard after just three or four goes. If the bonus stages on the grid had been removed it would be tougher, but as it is, veteran Speccy fans might beat this one in a couple of hours. Either that or I'm just a brilliant gamer and everyone else will find it difficult. Of these two possibilities, my head says the former and my ego the latter, but at the very least, the truth is somewhere in between. Nevertheless, SplATTR remains one of the most original and interesting games released for any 8-bit in years, and therefore I recommend it to anyone lucky enough to own a 128K Spectrum. What a pity that like a bank holiday weekend vacation, it ends just as things start to get really interesting.