It was Christmas Day 1989, and FatNicK didn’t realise he was about to unwrap what would arguably be the finest gaming experience on the ZX Spectrum.
On reflection, it’s probably a minor miracle that the world ever persuaded us that £40 to £50 cartridge games were the way to go. Back in the early 90s, you could probably count yourself lucky if Father Christmas slyly dropped one or two video games in your stocking. For the Christmas of 1989, however, the FatNicK house ended up with a grand total of five new titles to play. Blimey.
Did that make us richie-rich? Well, not quite: the only gaming platform available to the young FatNicK was a humble Spectrum +2, so all five came to around the same cost as a single Mega Drive game. Less, in fact, should that Mega Drive game have been one of the fancy premium titles, like Streets of Rage 2 or Virtual Racing.
A whopping five new titles to play sounds like the thing dreams are made of, but much like ending up with 20 onion bhajis to eat in one sitting (don’t ask), the situation became a bit difficult to digest. Being the polite little chap that I was, I fully intended to show each gift-giver my full respect by giving each present equal time.
More realistically, however, the inevitable quality variance always meant that one would get played more than the others. There could only be one king of Christmas, and this would inevitably be solved by a SPECTRUM BATTLE ROYALE.
FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT!
The Sinclair version of Hard Drivin’ (a lo-fi version compared to its later release on the Mega Drive) emerged as an early favourite. As an incredibly ambitious full-3D port, the whole thing felt very futuristic – even if there was enough time to make cup of tea in the time it took the poor Speccy to draw each frame. To this day it stands as a surprising testament to the things the Spectrum could do with 3D shapes, but unfortunately my enjoyment of this so-called “ultimate driving sim” was hampered slightly by the fact that, still under six, I didn’t really know how to drive a car properly.
Next into the fray was The Untouchables – a textbook example of Ocean Software’s excellent multi-genre movie tie-ins. Unfortunately, while I eventually discovered that it featured some fun shooting sections in the back-end of the game, the difficulty of the opening stages was as hard as one of those solid violin cases. Consequently, it ended up joining the back of the queue until I had access to the cheat that could help me level the playing field a bit (enter Humphrey Bogart on the high-score table, if you’re interested).
Two more contenders joined the fray: Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts was probably as perfect a Spectrum port of Capcom’s medieval platformer as it was possible to make on the Spectrum – unfortunately complete with the original’s somewhat vertical difficulty curve – while the chunky sprites of arcade rail-shooter Operation Thunderbolt (genuinely) offered about as much fun as you could have with a light-gun game that didn’t support a light gun.
On any normal day, either of these titles would probably have been good enough to be crowned King of Christmas. Unfortunately for them, they were up against what was probably the finest title to grace the entire Spectrum platform: Chase HQ.
Let’s go, Mr Driver!
If you want to see why I was grabbed so thoroughly and instantly by the Spectrum port of Chase HQ, you don’t need look much further than the title screen. Aping the attract mode of the arcade, it featured big chunky letters that bounced boldly onto the screen. Alone, this cool animated title screen was easily enough to put Chase HQ ahead of both the older Speccy title screens (that were generally plain affairs that made use of the main system font), and newer screens that used fancy colour effects and custom typography.
Despite already being ahead, the Chase HQ title screen went further. I soon learned that, like the original arcade attract mode, the chunky letters that made up the title screen arrived via a total of five cycling animations – from bunching up and then fanning out through to the ‘h’ in Chase, heading the dots in “H.Q.” like footballs. This seemed pretty bloody incredible at the time – and that was without my (much later) realisation that the noise it made when you finally pressed start was a digital sample of the arcade’s coin sound.
These are such small and seemingly insignificant details, but I think they really exemplify the mindsets of Bill Harbison and John O’Brien when they built the game. The Spectrum might have been an old, outdated platform, but it was clear that Ocean wanted to fit all of the original arcade cabinet’s features into the machine’s 128K of RAM – by hook or by crook.
Hold on, man!
Mind you, in the Spectrum-era, ports like this were a worrying business. Thankfully I’d been too young to be have been burned by the notoriously slow port of Outrun that had been forced onto the unsuspecting Speccy-owning public, but in the short time I’d been a Spectrum owner, I’d still endured a couple of incredibly disheartening duds nonetheless.
There were more to come as well; the Spectrum version of Final Fight that emerged a couple of years later captured the original arcade’s look, but the gameplay seemed to have been fundamentally broken in the attempt to stay so close to the source material. Though those of us stuck in the 8-bit world could accept the transition from colour to monochrome, our expectations for core gameplay were pretty undiluted.
For the benefit of anyone who’s had the misfortune to not encounter it yet, I should probably outline just what Chase HQ was. Essentially, the arcade release was one of many psuedo-3D games that arrived in the mid-to-late 80s. Driving from a viewpoint behind the player’s (high-performance) car, the game created a three-dimensional effect by scaling two-dimensional sprites up and down as they moved towards, or further away, from the player. It’s a pretty simple effect that worked surprisingly well at speed.
However, like many Taito arcade games from the era, Chase HQ had a twist. As the ‘Chase’ in the name suggests, the aim wasn’t just to dash to some arbitrary checkpoint as you did in most other racing games – you had to pursue and ram a sliding scale of increasingly dangerous criminals off the road. Needless to say, this twist made it an infinitely more interesting concept to the young me than any other boring, old, vanilla racing game.
Punch the pedal
So, after pressing start and sitting through the impressively animated briefing screen, how did the main game stack up? Thanks to my overly-dramatic introduction earlier, you’ve possibly guessed that it did fairly well. Kicking off with a (surprisingly clear) speech sample ripped from the arcade (the game cycles between “let’s go Mr Driver!”, “hold on man!” and “giddy up boy!”), the graphics revealed chunky sprite and tile graphics that lost the colour of their arcade counterparts but retained a breathtaking amount of minute detail, like the silhouette of the player car’s rear-view mirror.
More impressive than the detail, however, was the fact that the game was fast. Really fast. OK, so it didn’t come close to the 60fps demanded from a modern racer, but the animation still ran at a speed we would accept as playable today – a real compliment considering that of most of Chase HQ‘s Speccy competition ran at paces that were almost measured in seconds per frame, not frames per second.
Of course, being a ZX Spectrum game, my initial playthrough quickly revealed that it was ridiculously hard. If you had a perfect run you could easily complete all five of the game’s stages in about 20 minutes, but even with the best part of 30 years’ practice that perfect run still escapes me today. That’s not to say it’s unreasonably difficult – the game didn’t resort to cheap tricks like spawning cars in unavoidable spaces on tight bends – it just sets time limits that are achievable, yet leave little room for smashing into other vehicles.
And you don’t have much excuse for hitting those other vehicles, either. The original game might have been designed for a steering wheel and pedals, but the Spectrum car felt light and responsive even when its controls were mapped to the +2’s deliciously clicky keyboard (“Q” was accelerate, “A” brake, “O” left, “P” right, “Space bar” change gear, and “Enter” turbo, FYI). I made tons of mistakes in the fading light of that Christmas afternoon, but they always felt like my mistakes rather than unreasonable design choices.
It may have taken me a few goes to reach the first target car without using any continues (and even longer to defeat it and reach the second stage), but unlike Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts, the game never felt like a chore. Not only was the simple act of driving the car a thrill, but there were tons of delicate little touches – like the dust clouds that rose when your car jumped on a dirt road – which helped the illusion of the game world feel more real and absorbing.
Your time’s up
Of course, with Speccy games being so cheap, it was inevitable that Chase HQ would fall from favour as time moved inevitably on. Still, it did well for itself. Despite being one of the longer tape loads in my collection, it was a title that was regularly fished out of the big blue storage crate I used for tape storage even after the bulk of my interest had been diverted to newer, shinier titles. I only really stopped playing it for good once the Speccy itself was placed into storage.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Spectrum version of Chase HQ, but it was only as the years went on that I started to put the pieces together and work out how incredibly special it was. Though it was obvious at the time that it was absolutely incredible for a Spectrum game, I’d always assumed it was an inferior port overall. How could it compete with the seductively detailed and colourful Amiga screenshots I saw in mags like C&VG?
It took over a decade to track down the original arcade game. If there was a family trip that involved a visit to a beach or a motorway services I would generally try to visit an arcade if I could. Although there always seemed to be a reasonably plentiful supply of knackered Outrun machines with wonky steering wheels, I never encountered a single Chase HQ – that was until I accidentally stumbled across it as the lone arcade cab in a smoky East London pool hall which, well, didn’t quite smell of cigarette smoke.
Effectively the gaming equivalent of a director’s cut, the original arcade game was blisteringly fast, left my beloved 8-bit version for dust in the graphics department, had all of the original music and digital sound effects AND featured the exciting arcade wheel and pedal controls.
Yet to be honest, it didn’t quite measure up to the Spectrum experience. The graphics were amazing in comparison to the home versions, but compared to equivalent Sega arcade titles from the time, felt kind of lacking. Though playing an arcade game with a steering wheel is always good fun, that fun was tempered by transparent cheating on the developer’s part, with walls of unavoidable traffic spawning on almost unavoidable positions on bends.
[Okay, you could argue that I’m not skilled enough to play the arcade game – and you’d probably have a point – but when the overall difficulty, timer and number of turbos are all in the hands of an arcade manager rather than the player or the developer, you’ll have a hard time persuading me the difficulty is a design decision rather than a commercial one!]
Ports ‘n’ all
Before stumbling across the arcade, the only other version I’d played had been the one I’d received alongside my Master System for Christmas in 1991. The SMS version is definitely an interesting alternative take on the game – adding some welcome additions such as car upgrades and some unwelcome ones like gratuitously looping stages – but even though it has in game-music and full colour graphics, a lot of the endearing touches (such as the helicopter which appears during the second and fourth stages) found in the Spectrum are missing, and the game is generally a bit too easy.
With the dawn of high-speed internet making emulation of most machines a triviality, I was soon also able to try the competing contemporary home versions to round out my knowledge. Both ridiculously slow and green, something had clearly gone horribly, horribly wrong with the C64 version. I think I lasted about 30 seconds before turning it off. Given the esteem that the SID sound chip is held in, it’s telling that even the music in the 128k Spectrum version is unquestionably superior. It’s a port with no redeeming features whatsoever.
Though the MSX version was quite obviously superior to the C64, it was quite clearly a port of the Spectrum game. Featuring the same well-defined artwork as the Speccy, the MSX port ran with a softer palette and a lower framerate, but is essentially the same game – something which was great for late-80s MSX 1 owners, but not so useful in the 21st century.
Likewise, the Amstrad CPC version seems to have been a port of the Spectrum version too. Unlike the MSX outing, it has one definitive strength of its own: running in one of the CPCs higher colour modes, it trades some of the Speccy’s exquisite detail for a splash of extra in-game colour. It’s a serviceable alternative for anyone who can’t handle the monochromatic world of the Spectrum.
It wasn’t terribly unusual for releases on the Spectrum to be the kings of the 8-bit era. But what really took me by surprise was just how well Chase HQ held up against the 16-bit versions of the game.
At the time, it was difficult to avoid lusting over the highly-detailed fully colourised screenshots of the Amiga version found in the likes of C&VG, but after finally booting this Amiga release up, the experience was surprisingly lacking: though it looks great in stills, the visuals don’t hold up so well in motion. On top of that, the roads are so wide the actual driving part feels vacuous and unchallenging, while most of the difficulty of the chasing part seemed to stem from the same incredibly cheap traffic-spawning techniques as the arcade.
Likewise, the visuals of the Japan-only PC Engine looked superior, but in practice it lost a lot of the little details found in the Spectrum version, like the incessant chatter from your partner and the helicopter support. It also featured design that managed to be even more punishing than the arcade, with the target vehicles regularly ghosting their way through impenetrable walls of traffic. Having played multiple iterations of Chase HQ, it was clear that the one version which achieved the best balance was the Spectrum game – the one I first played all those years ago.
Thank you, Perfect Chaser
Why is all this important? Well, in real terms, it probably isn’t. Still, in our minds, old videogames are inevitably entwined with the concept of nostalgia. Our favourite games are not just combinations of graphics, sound and logic routines chained together to create the illusion of some form of comprehensible experience – they’re anchors which act as a perpetual link between us and a special time in our past.
But we appreciate these old games because they still offer genuinely enjoyable gameplay experiences in their own right, or simply because we hunger for the comforts of the past?
For me, Chase HQ demonstrates that one doesn’t necessarily preclude the other. I’m not going to deny that playing Chase HQ doesn’t help me more vividly recall the wallpaper around my childhood bedroom, the little corner behind the door where the Spectrum was set up, or the smell of my late nan’s roast potatoes wafting up from the kitchen halfway through a Christmas morning, but for me the quality of the Spectrum Chase HQ is undeniable. When it comes to Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts and Hard Drivin’, my preference is for the unarguably superior 16-bit versions, regardless of any nostalgia. For Chase HQ, though? Spectrum every time.
- Beautifully detailed graphics
- All of the minute detail from the original arcade machine…
- …and a fairer game overall
- It took about 12 minutes to load back in 1989
- Resetting enemy damage on continue was a little bit cheap
- That’s it. Everything else is PERFECT
It’s often easy to overestimate the quality of those special games you first encountered over the course of a childhood Christmas, but in the harsh light of day, the Spectrum version of Chase HQ still proves itself to be a veritable titan that bests competing ports on superior hardware and even the original arcade machine. If you were to play just one ZX Spectrum game in your life, you should probably make sure it’s this one.