Stephen Crow’s Classic ZX Spectrum Games

Game designer Stephen J. Crow made some seminal games for the ZX Spectrum, starting with Laser Snaker in 1983 and Factory Breakout in 1984 for Poppy Soft.

Crow then produced two smash hit classics for Bubble Bus Software with Wizard’s Lair and Starquake, both released in the same year, 1985. He then went on to create Firelord and program Zynaps for Hewson in subsequent years.

This five-year burst of creativity, from 1983 to 1987, showed a young designer quickly becoming confident of his coding and graphical skills and gradually improving his game design craft from game to game.

It could be argued that Wizard’s Lair is a clone of Ultimate‘s classic Atic Atac – and in some respects that is true – but what Crow did was actually unheard of… He actually improved on Atic Atac with Wizard’s Lair… Maybe not in terms of overall gameplay, because Atic Atac is Ultimate‘s best game, but he did manage to cram more interesting features and special effects into his version of the overhead/room shooter than Ultimate did in theirs, and the gameplay was different enough to be unique. The ammo system in Wizard’s Lair is a bit frustrating, true. And the game is quite difficult to make headway in too. Crow, though, was working out some clever game design skills and inadvertently breaking new ground as he went with Wizard’s Lair.

Arguably Steve Crow‘s ‘magnum opus’ was Starquake, published by Bubble Bus Software in 1985. Controlling a cute walking head, waddling around a maze of colourful caverns, Starquake was given a unique twist with Crow‘s unusual take on platforming and shooting. Starquake also got more interesting the deeper you went into the game, and with its teleport and core puzzle game mechanic was graphically very interesting and varied too. At least for a 48K Spectrum game… Starquake is easy to play, but tough to beat. Like all of Crow‘s games.

Firelord, published by Hewson in 1986, proved to be Crow‘s last full game as programmer and auteur designer of a ZX Spectrum game. Beautiful graphics, combined with subtle, clever gameplay, with a maze/shooting element. A lot of people didn’t get it, but Crow still managed to show his prowess at Spectrum game design.

Special mention must go to SC‘s programming and graphical contributions to Hewson‘s hit scrolling shooter, Zynaps, the following year.

From 1986 through to 1988 Crow also worked on a number of conversions for Hewson and Graftgold. Pretty much all ZX Spectrum conversions of games from other systems, like Uridium, Netherworld and Eliminator. Finally Crow created the graphics for Probe Software‘s tank shooter Heavy Metal in 1990, then moved on to pastures new.

LISTS: as created by The King of Grabs, in chronological order:

Laser Snaker (1983)
Factory Breakout (1984)
Wizard’s Lair (1985)
Starquake (1985)
Firelord (1986)
Zynaps (1987)

Starquake even made it to the Atari ST in 1988 via Mandarin Software.

Wizard's Lair ZX Spectrum 58

Firelord, ZX Spectrum

Stephen Crow‘s fifth commercial game for the ZX Spectrum, released by Hewson Consultants in 1986.

Firelord wasn’t as big a success (at least critically) as Crow‘s previous two games (Wizard’s Lair and Starquake), but it sure as hell looked great. Steve Crow‘s graphics skills working wonders with the characters and background graphics of this medieval adventure.

The basic aim of the game is to find four ‘charms of eternal youth’, and trade them with the Evil Queen in exchange for the Firestone, which will lift the curse that has flooded the land of Torot with apparitions.

You play Sir Galaheart, a crusading knight who can cast spells at the apparitions to temporarily destroy them, but they eventually repsawn. Galaheart can buy or trade spells at shops, and can also attempt to steal them. Be warned, though, getting caught stealing can lead to execution…

When the game ends the player is given a medieval ranking, from the lowest, Serf, to the highest, Firelord. Note: the rank Firelord can only be achieved by completing the game’s ‘secret’ objective – by stealing the Firestone from the Evil Queen, not trading for it.


Factory Breakout, ZX Spectrum

Steve Crow‘s second game, Factory Breakout, was published by Poppy Soft in 1984.

It is a game with three distinct sections, the second and third of which repeat with greater difficulty.

The first section (played just once per game) is an eight-directional shooter where you have to stop lasers from reaching you until a timer runs down. The second section is a simple ‘dodge-the-lasers-down-a-corridor’ game, and the third section is a Pac-Man style platform game where you have to fall through holes in the floor to make them disappear, while at the same time avoiding chasing monsters.

Factory Breakout does have some very nice, colourful and cute graphics, and is very playable. As a 1984 release it further indicated that Steve Crow was a programmer/designer to be watched. His next game – Wizard’s Lair – really cemented that fact.

More: Factory Breakout on World of Spectrum

Laser Snaker, ZX Spectrum

Considering that Laser Snaker was Steve Crow‘s first commercial game: it is not only an excellent one, but it also shows Crow‘s flair for high quality presentation.

Not just ‘quality’ in terms of the graphics (the graphics in Laser Snaker are very simple, compared to Steve‘s later games), but also in terms of the controls. Because, out of all the antiquated, early ‘snake’ type games on the ZX Spectrum, Laser Snaker has the most responsive controls and is probably the best.

Don’t play Laser Snaker on the default skill level (Trainee) though – bump it up a notch. The easiest skill level is boring and it doesn’t seem to get any harder as you progress. If you play the harder difficulties, the game at least becomes much more interesting, with rival snakes appearing and walled puzzle rooms that are very challenging to beat.

Laser Snaker was published by Poppy Soft in 1983.

More: Laser Snaker on World of Spectrum

Super Cobra, ColecoVision

Like the MSX version of Super Cobra this 1983 ColecoVision conversion is also flawed.

For starters: the levels just repeat themselves over and over – except in different colours. It unfortunately makes the game very boring to play. You keep thinking: “I’m sure I’ve seen this bit before…” And you have, because the same hills and tunnels keep appearing, time and time again.

It’s a pity because ColecoVision Super Cobra could (should) have been good – better than the MSX version anyway. The scrolling is smooth and the graphics are well-defined and are reasonably colourful, but they are wasted on unnecessarily repetitive gameplay. A little bit of design ingenuity and developer Parker Brothers would surely have solved that.


Super Cobra, MSX

Konami themselves converted Super Cobra to the MSX, which is surprising because it’s missing the infamous ‘colour cycling’ of the arcade original (and all the other conversions). MSX Super Cobra stays distinctly green. And I have to wonder if that is an oversight, or a bug.

The game itself plays well enough. The programmers decided to use a single button to drop bombs and shoot, which makes the game easier.

The mile waypoints in this are in hundreds of miles, not thousands of miles like the arcade game. Not sure why. There don’t seem to be any ‘base’ sections in the landscape either, with the tall concrete walls…

This is a relatively half-baked version in truth. It should have been a lot better – especially from Konami themselves.


Super Cobra, Intellivision

The Intellivision console has a very good conversion of Konami‘s arcade hit Super Cobra, courtesy of Parker Brothers.

Graphically, it is a little on the chunky side, but is colourful and reasonably smooth-moving, so that is forgivable.

Super Cobra is basically a clone of Scramble, except with you flying a helicopter and not a space ship. You can shoot forward and drop bombs below, just like in Scramble.

This conversion doesn’t seem to have the directional rockets of the arcade original – the rockets in this just fly up vertically.

Super Cobra is a decent side-scrolling shooter on the Intellivision.


Super Cobra, Atari 800

Park Brothers developed this conversion of Konami‘s classic arcade game, Super Cobra, and released it on Atari 8-bit home computers in 1983.

Graphically it is very good, with nicely-defined backgrounds and sprites, and the colour cycling that defines its arcade parent.

Gameplay-wise it is solid too – balancing challenge versus playability nicely, and having reasonably forgiving collision detection.


Super Cobra, Arcade

Konami‘s Super Cobra was released into video game arcades in 1981. It not only uses the same hardware as Konami‘s hit game Scramble, but it also borrows many of its gameplay features.

In Super Cobra, though, you’re flying a helicopter, and not a space ship, but you are still shooting your way through colourful side-scrolling caverns.

Let not kid ourselves though: in all other aspects Super Cobra is a clone of Scramble – the dual shoot/bomb firing combo; the rising enemy rockets; the fuel containers that you have to shoot to keep your fuel topped-up… all of these are lifted straight outta Scramble.

What Super Cobra does do – that Scramble doesn’t – is let you continue from where you died when the game is over. If you insert more coins you can pick up where you left off – minus your score (you start scoring again from scratch). There are also directional rockets that fire at you, tanks that move and shoot at you, and a few other surprises that aren’t in Scramble.

Super Cobra is a decent ‘iteration’ of Scramble overall, though. Konami can’t be blamed for cloning their own game, because they at least tried to improve it, and succeeded in many respects.


10 Best Intellivision Games

LISTS: as decided by The King of Grabs, in descending order of greatness:

1. Treasure of Tarmin
2. Tower of Doom
3. Cloudy Mountain
4. B-17 Bomber
5. Lock ‘n’ Chase
6. Stadium Mud Buggies
7. Chip Shot Super Pro Golf
8. Bump ‘n’ Jump
9. Auto Racing
10. Dracula