Thursday, December 10, 2020

Games 220-222: Zilec Electronics & Jetpac

At the peak of their heyday and for many years after, Rare was perhaps the most internationally celebrated British game developer of all time, thanks in no small part to their lucrative, multi-generational partnership with Nintendo.

Officially, Rare would have you believe that their history begins with Jetpac, a 1983 release by their founders Chris & Tim Stamper for the ZX Spectrum microcomputer. This is the earliest game in the Rare Replay collection of 2015, it's included in Donkey Kong 64's minigames, and even their collected works compilation of 1988 begins with Jetpac. Jetpac is indeed the next whale on the list, but any reading on the subject of their history beyond Rare's own curation shows that it goes back further than that, though things do get rather murky.

Wikipedia's page on Ultimate Play the Game states, citing a 1983 computer magazine, that they claimed to be "the most experienced arcade video game design team in Britain," but there are no contemporary lists of their prior arcade game credits, and what's available lacks veracity. The article on the Stamper brothers mentions "12 arcade games" but cagily states that most of them were kept secret and sold to major developers. One of the few listed there is Gyruss, which I find preposterous.

Digital Antiquarian writes that in 1979 they began their careers at Associated Leisure, developing arcade conversion kits for the British market. Their manager, Norman Parker, convinced them and their friend/co-worker John Lathbury to join his startup Zilec, which developed games in-house.

The earliest Zilec game emulated by MAME is Vortex, and according to a thread on Spectrum Computing Forums, the names of John Lathbury and Chris Stamper appear in the ROM code. Vortex is a crummy Asteroids knock-off with choppy gameplay, lackluster graphics, and strange controls that require you to hold the fire button to thrust.

The next, 1981's Enigma II, is a vertical shooter that lift ideas from a number of other, better contemporaries, most notably mimicking the look of Phoenix, though it's not without some original ideas, like having limited vertical control via fuel-burning thrusters.

The Stampers' earliest sourced credit is 1982's The Pit, though not as its original designers. Electronics shopkeeper and tinkerer Andy Walker had custom-built a multi-game system which was demoed at trade shows in London and Miami. The Pit proved its most popular title, but Walker's system just wasn't suited for mass production, and needed conversion.

The historical record gets muddy here. The Golden Age Arcade Historian writes that Walker licensed the game to Centuri and Zilec and suggests diverging versions; that Centuri rewrote the game to run on their own boards, while Zilec had the Stampers port it to Galaxian-derived hardware for English arcades. An interview with Walker published in Retro Gamer seems to be the source for this. However, MAME shows no significant differences between the Zilec and Centuri versions, nor gives any indication that they run on different hardware. A third version, licensed to Taito for Japanese distribution, likewise appears identical.

For what it's worth, it's very easy for me to believe that The Pit uses Galaxian-derived hardware, as it uses Z80 processors, the same background resolution, and similar tilemap graphics. Centuri's in-house games of the time, on the other hand, used M6502 processors and had 256x256 bitmap graphics. I believe Walker is mistaken about Centuri's role; that Zilec developed the extant version (possibly giving the job to the Stampers), and that Centuri was the U.S. distributor.

Game 220: The Pit

Holy smokes, this is Boulder Dash. Can't be a coincidence.

Digging and boulder-dropping might have been seen before in Dig Dug and Mr. Do! (incidentally, Walker claims The Pit influenced both, but personally I don't find his anecdote credible), but not like this. In those games, dirt and rocks are tools for destroying your enemies. Here, navigating the terrain and grabbing the diamonds is your ultimate goal, and the boulders are obstacles to impede your path. There are enemies, but they mostly wander aimlessly.

You can "win" without collecting all of the gems, but if you're going for a high score it's pretty much required; collecting six will double your bonus, but collecting all seven will triple it. I managed this three times before the game got too fast to handle.

GAB rating: Above Average. The Pit, whether the Stampers had anything to do with it or not, is pretty fun! There's almost an Indiana Jones-like feel in places, especially the main gem room where disturbing the treasure activates a deadly arrow trap.

But there's an almost fatal flaw - the controls are horribly twitchy. Often times you've got to dig a space with absolutely perfect pixel precision, and while sometimes you can bump against impassable terrain features to align yourself, this isn't always a possibility. The worst example of this is the single-tile bottleneck passage above the acid pit, which you must exit through to return to your ship, and the moment you enter this room, the floor begins to drop under your feet, giving you no time at all to adjust your position to the precise pixel alignment necessary.

Also, turning around to shoot a pursuing enemy is risky, as you're likely to just fumble into his deadly grasp.

To be fair, The Pit is otherwise a rather easy game. There's only one level, with only two possible boulder layouts, and everything is pretty deterministic. Still, it's frustrating when virtually every death feels like the fault of the controls.

Also, can I just say, I find the death animations in this game oddly horrific.

Mobygames directly credits Zilec's next game to the Stampers and Lathbury, whose names all appear in the ROM code.

Game 221: Blueprint

If this isn't the first "Rare" game, it's the first that feels like one, with its quirky humor, its sentient googly-eyed things, and generally weird Britishness.


The Pac-Man inspiration is obvious, but this one's pretty unique as far as maze games go. There are ten houses, and eight of them have machine parts that you must bring to the 1:1 scale blueprint to assemble your contraption. Enter a house that doesn't have a part - either because it never had one, or because you already took it and forgot - and you get a bomb, which you've got to dispose of before it explodes and kills you. Sometimes it's a short-fused red bomb, and depending on how far away you are from the bomb disposal pit you might not even have a chance to get rid of it even if you sprint, which depletes from a meter. Sometimes a monster emerges from the pit and tries to sabotage your machine, which isn't a big deal as the parts just collapse and you can reassemble it with too much trouble, but it's better to just catch it and drag it back to the pit to avoid this altogether. As a non-diegetic time limit, a monster chases your girlfriend, costing you a try when he catches her, and occasionally knocks over flower pots which bounce around the level in a semi-random fashion, killing you on contact.


Once you assemble the machine, you have to start it up, and then awkwardly use it to destroy the monster. I could never quite figure out its controls - it seems to fire tennis balls when it wants, in the direction it wants, and if they hit the monster, great.

Then it repeats, with a monster wandering the maze to slow you down and perhaps make the memorization aspect a bit more difficult.

GAB Rating: Average. There's nothing really wrong with this game, but I didn't find it all that challenging or fun.


The Stampers' independent studio - Ashby Computers and Graphics Ltd. - did produce one arcade game, Dingo, which bears their logo, and was licensed through Jaleco rather than Zilec. This is, to my knowledge, the only game predating Jetpac that is officially credited to them. I don't care to play this game in depth - I personally found it simplistic and dull - but I just wanted to acknowledge its existence.

Game 222: Jetpac

Jetpac might not actually be the first "Rare" game, but it was the first that the Stampers produced and distributed independently, and their first to be designed for the home microcomputers that were quickly taking over Britain. They targeted the 16KB ZX Spectrum, being cheap and popular, but thanks to their experience in the regimented arcade industry, they worked with a professionalism more characteristic of American imports than of the so-called bedroom programmers who coded the majority of the British market's homespun computer games on their own budget machines.

The product is a pretty solid and original arcade-style game that controls well and clips at a decent speed and frame rate, though the visual limitations of the popularly priced Spectrum certainly show.

Your goal is to assemble a shuttle from pieces lying around the stage - we can see this assembly goal previously in Blueprint - and then fuel it while avoiding or shooting deadly comets, and collecting any valuables that might land in your vicinity. Then you blast off to the next planet to collect more fuel and treasures while deadlier fuzzy aliens attack. Come to think of it, we've also seen this interstellar looting before in The Pit.

There are eight stages per loop, each with a different type of alien threat. Notably, each of the eight types of aliens have completely different movement patterns, and need different tactics to avoid. The final and most difficult type are these googly-eyed frog-like monsters that pursue you relentlessly, but you're fairly safe from them (and most  other things for that matter) on the upper-right platform. Only stages 1 and 5 require you to assemble the shuttle. There are four shuttle models in total, and you'll need to go through the game loop twice to see them all.

Although it plays like an arcade game of the time, Jetpac plays much more fairly than most, given that Ultimate already has your money and can't munch your tenpence any further. It's not completely fair - sometimes fuel appears on the edges of the screen, where aliens are likely to spawn without warning, but I managed to loop through the game twice anyway. Figuring out the safety zones during the more difficult stages made all the difference.

GAB rating: Good. Sure, it's ugly and repetitive, and the sound effects all sound like farts, but you know what? It's original, inoffensive, and I had fun playing it.

Ultimate Play the Game continued to focus on the ZX Spectrum as late as 1987, but their best titles all had releases in 1983 or 1984, and virtually every list of top games on the platform contains a few of them. Later titles sold well enough but had lukewarm critical reception. 1988's "Collected Works" compilation contained 11 of the 13 house-developed Spectrum games, missing only the well-received Underwurlde, and the not so well-received Pentagram. There were also a few Commodore exclusives, which were downright reviled.

Jetpac remained one of Ultimate's best selling and best reviewed titles of all time. Though a May release, it continued to topped the Spectrum sales charts by the holiday season. Any ranking of the games by Ultimate usually have Jetpac or 1984's Knight Lore at the top, and every list of top games of the platform that I've ever seen has one or both on it. It sold 300,000 copies - an astounding figure considering the Spectrum itself only reached 500,000 sales in 1983. Jetpac had one immediate sequel - Lunar Jetman on the Spectrum later that year. Years later in 1990, Rare produced Solar Jetman for the NES, and in 2007, a remake Jetpac Refuelled on XBLA.


  1. "Internationally, Rare is perhaps the most celebrated British game developer of all time"

    An interesting claim, possibly correct! I just wondered idly who the contenders might be... Psygnosis? Bullfrog? Codemasters? The Bitmap Brothers?

    1. ... though I bet DMA Design (now Rockstar North) have moved more units than the lot of them combined!

    2. Oh, for sure! And I recognize the nebulous and unquantifiable nature of this claim. I think Team17, Revolution, Rebellion, Traveller's Tales, The Creative Assembly, and Sumo Digital are in the contenders too. But Rare just seems to stand out with the sheer quantity of instantly recognizable classics. A lot of these big names are strongly associated with a particular franchise or niche, but Rare just has so many strong IPs that, deservedly or not, keep showing up on "best game of all time" lists.

    3. For the sake of my own curiosity, I went through Wikipedia's list of "video games considered the best" and picked out the British developed ones. Rare's on there a lot less than I thought it would be - only Donkey Kong Country and GoldenEye 007. But only Rockstar North has more games than that; five GTA's and Lemmings. Codemasters, which I read once represented 70% of all domestic computer game sales, isn't on there at all!

    4. Codemasters were extremely prolific. My own impression of them from the time was that they were reliable hitters, but rarely reached real greatness. Consistently ok to good, but never super amazing.

  2. Eidos / Domark have got to be up there also.

    Rare has an advantage on many of them to not only have gotten in early but had a long time to leave their indelible mark, a 35-year run so far. Codemasters have sure sold a ton of games, but in the modern period have kind of disappeared down a ghetto of narrow genre. If car racing and Sensible Soccer aren't your cup of tea, you may not even be aware of their existence!

  3. I had the pleasure of getting to know Norman Parker in his older days. Sadly he passed away a few years ago but told me all about this time in his life. He was extremely proud of these guys. RIP Norman. Because of you we got some unbelievable games!


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