ZX Spectrum Games

ZX Spectrum Games

2 Mar 2012

Spectrum Games - Dark Star - Classic ZX Spectrum game

Darkstar ZX Spectrum
This retro classic is one of the finest ever vector graphics arcade games to grace the ZX Spectrum (or any other 8-bit micro for that matter).

This classic game was released at the tail end of 1984 and was met with universal praise from pretty much everyone; and with good reason too.

Design Design were one of the more 'wacky' software houses during the 8-bit era and their games were usually of high quality, slightly quirky, supremely slick and full of hidden features.

In fact I have a feature that goes more in-depth to the hidden gems to be found in this game here.

But for now let's take a look at a real classic game that still plays superbly in 2012.
Dark Star loads up
The Dark Star galaxy was divided into a 16 by 16 grid of sectors in the vacuum of space. No one can hear you scream either.

Anyway - there is a lot to describe in this game so here goes...

The LIAR's (what a great name for your ship!) battle computer generated a real time display on your screen which displayed all activity in your immediate vicinity.

As well as showing enemy ships and any missiles they fired at you, this display also showed energy concentrations (blue squares) and Warp Gates to hyperspace (yellow squares).

Flying through space towards those warp-gates

Flying through an energy concentration enabled LIAR to increase its supply of shield energy (energy used to operate the ship's navigation and weaponry systems was generated by an internal energy source - handy!)

Your weaponry was aimed by manoeuvring the ship via the central cross-hair, whilst of course the ship could be made to travel at various speeds using the accelerate or decelerate keys. It was classic arcade 3D action all the way.

As you cruised your way around space enemy ships would sporadically appear and take pot-shots at you; their missiles would deplete your shield energy rapidly so fancy flying and shooting was needed to take these bad boys out.

The overall object of the game was to liberate your galaxy from domination by the Evil Lord's tyrannical Empire. (Sounds familiar? I'm sure I heard this before a long, long time ago...)

To achieve this aim you had to wipe out all of the enemy's military centres on the planets within your galaxy which were displayed in green on the Tactical Sector Map.

The tactical galactic sector scan
Moving from one sector to another required you to make a transition to hyperspace.

This was done by first finding a set of Warp Gates, which were displayed as four yellow squares (arranged in a North, South, East, West formation) which shrunk and expanded as they opened and closed.

Flying into one of these whilst it was open took you in the direction you had chosen to move within the galactic grid.

The route through hyperspace was mapped out as a rectangular tunnel which weaved and turned as you navigated your way through it. Accurate flying was required here as travelling outside of this tunnel really put a drain on your shield energy; not to mention a slight crimp on your day.

Each sector of space you entered contained planets. You could investigate any planet by flying down onto the surface, which was achieved by flying directly into a planet (as if on a collision course). This would then switch your view to the planet surface as you entered the atmosphere.

Planetary data was displayed with some humorous text

The surface of a planet occupied by enemy forces was defended by anti-aircraft weaponry set atop towering structures.

These could be disabled by firing on the towers which collapsed very nicely when hit with your forward firing lasers. Missiles aimed at you could be shot out of the sky or avoided - and as you would expect too many missile hits resulted in game over.

Certain areas on the planet were defended by force shields which damaged you if flown through. Handily though, holes in these fields were displayed as rectangles which you could fly through to stop any damage to your ship.

Each enemy base on the planets were hidden in the centre of a ring of defences, and were also protected by three towers. These three towers generated the planetary defence shields, which had to be destroyed by destroying all of the bases on the planet, allowing you to escape the atmosphere and return to space.

Destroying these towers liberated the planet from the evil empire allowing you to move on to the next one.

In short this meant that if you ended up strafing a planet you could not escape again until all the bases on it were destroyed. (In the usual Design Design game customisation this feature could be disabled from within the game options menus)

Your computer could also display a tactical map of the surface, showing defences, bases and fuel dumps. Your position (and direction) were denoted on the map by a white arrow. The tactical map usually had humorous notes on the atmosphere (such as cold, wet and awful, just like Manchester) and further funny comments. These were classic gaming features from Simon Bratell.

Once all of the planets with military installations had been liberated then the game was won. Sounds easy no? Well let me tell you it isn't...

On Release:
Crash magazine ran a lot of previews of this game and when it was finally released they awarded it a well deserved 'smash' status. They also awarded it a score of 100% for their use of computer category, due to the awesome amount of customisation that you could perform on the game. Changing the enemy type, the screen display type, the enemy missile types, the sound effects, the fully define-able keys, the 'Universe Stopwatch Mode', the changing high-score table each time you loaded the game.... The amount of effort and attention put into this game was mightily impressive.

The game was also praised for it's ultra-fast and flicker free vector graphics which were, at the time, the fastest and smoothest to ever grace the Spectrum. In fact they were probably never bettered until the sequel to this game came along.

This game was a big hit and is for me a classic game from the 8-bit era.

The test of time:
You know what? This game still rocks.

Once I had played it a few times it all came flooding back. The blue energy squares, the warp gates, the planetary defences. The game zips along at a breakneck speed and plays along smoother than polished ice. The way the graphics move, the way the towers collapse as you shoot them, the transition through the warp gates; it is all completely flicker free and oozes class.

There is plenty of challenge in here - and even if your reflexes ain't what they used to be you can customise the game perfectly to give you more of a fighting chance. Cramming this much into a ZX Spectrum was a programming miracle and for me it has stood up to the ravages of time very well. The full screen display is also impressive (using the Spectrum's border area during gameplay) and highlights just how much can be squeezed out of so little.

Even when you have lost the game you can have a lot of fun with the high score table which may even respond to whatever you type in. (Try entering 'Design Design', 'Computer and Video Games' and more.

Remember to read Dark Star Cheat Codes for more high-score table shenanigans.

Another famous high-score table from Design Design

Please, give this classic game a go. If you like vector graphics games then this one has to be on your list.

Oh - and as the inlay to the game said:
If it moves, shoot it. If it doesn't move - shoot it anyway. If it's sqaure - fly through it.

We recommend getting hold of the real hardware - but if not then download a ZX Spectrum Emulator and download Darkstar. Alternatively you could try and play it online.

GENRE: Arcade Game (Vector Graphics)
RELEASE DATE: End of 1984
RELEASED BY: Design Design Software
DEVELOPER(S): Simon Bratell, Graham Stafford, Neil Mottershead, Jon Ritman
PRICE: £7.50 -UK

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