More noise than signal

Psytron — Zx Spectrum

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

In the current wave of oh-so-nostalgic ‘retrogaming’ that seems in vogue these days I always feel one particular game gets short shrift; Psytron for the ZX Spectrum, a game so complex and innovative that (arguably) it took around a decade for the rest to catch up to it.

On it’s release in June 1984 by a little known company, Beyond, video games on the spectrum were largely limited, primitive affairs. This is not entirely unexpected as the hardware it was running on was largely limited and primitive. Without going into a discourse on the system, the ZX Spectrum 48K this game was designed to run on featured 48K of memory, a Zilog Z80A CPU running at 3.54MHz, and a basic graphics display chip which could only assign two colours to blocks of 8×8 pixels at a time, resulting in some horrifying colour clash when sprites overlapped in each other in these zones. Oh, and a grand total of 8 colours, and a sound chip which could do little more than beep. (Literally. The built in programming language, Sinclair BASIC, used a BEEP command to control it).

This is not to say a vast quantity of enjoyable games did not exist, many such as Jet-Pac, Commando, Jet Set Willy and Chuckie Egg are still regarded as classics. However in terms of scope and depth, these are fairly limited, ‘arcadey’ games. No such criticism could be leveled at Psytron.The game is set on a planet far far away, named Betula 5. You assume the role of a commander, the Psytron, of the sealed-off base on the planet’s surface, airtight against the hostile atmosphere. The base consists of a number of facilities connected by an inner ring. This is represented through ten separate screens, with your control centre apparently being located in the middle of the facility, the other buildings radiating out.

These facilities include the obviously necessary ones as crew quarters, medical facilities, docking bays and atmosphere processing, as well as some more exotic items such as a freezetime generator (what, you don’t have one? They’re simply all the rage in Kensington.) and a matter disrupter bank. All these have various uses throughout the game, so it’s clearly worthwhile keeping them in good working order.

The presence of a matter disrupter bank hints at the presence of some sort of trouble on Betula 5, and indeed that’s the case. The base will come under attack from an un-named alien foe, possibly as some on-going war, perhaps as a metaphor for the soul’s irreconcilability with the mind, probably as a plot device. Thankfully the aliens aren’t going to immediately start a full on assault, possibly as an overtone to a peace offer, perhaps as some way of gauging the base’s resistance, probably as a plot device. And just as well, because this gives us some time to be gradually introduced to the scope of your powers.

The game spans six levels, all on the same base. In the first level, all you can do is watch as the alien ships grow from specs on the horizon to being all up in your face. Their first plan of attack is to drop saboteurs into the base’s inner ring of connecting walkways. You can easily jump between screens using the number keys, giving quick access throughout the base to find these loathsome rapscallions. These doglike creatures bound along to the nearest airlock and then explode, causing a fair amount of damage while doing so.

Clearly they must be stopped. This is accomplished by sending out a remote drone to intercept, controlled on the small screen in the bottom right corner. This gives us the drone’s point of view, the idea being to get close enough to shoot the explosive little critter, who tends to jink and bob around to add a little spice to the proceedings.

Okay, in terms of your enjoyment it’s unlikely to give Max Payne a run for your money, but unlike Max Payne this game has a lot more to it. Any kind of first person viewpoint was a novelty this early on in the Spectrum’s life, and indeed that of video games, so this was a fairly enjoyable little novelty.

Which is a good thing indeed, because you’ll be playing the level over again five times before moving on to the next one. The rationale for this being to prove your competency before moving on to the next challenge, meaning you must achieve an average score over your last six attempts greater than the target for that level. Once you have, you can progress. This will mean that you’ll have a good grasp of the skills introduced on that level to carry forward, and also extends the amount of time you’ll have to spend on the game to beat it fivefold. Your views on this may vary from being an interesting bit of game design (arguably realistic in that you have to prove yourself to your superiors, or as realistic as space base commanding can get) to being an exceptionally cheap way of blocking your progress. I can’t say it seemed too annoying at the time, however when going back to play it and having lost any saved games I had, being forced to play the same early levels over when wanting to push on was irritating.

The next level allows you to take the fight to the alien pig-dogs in the sky. Standard cross hairs based aim and shoot applies. You must simply destroy the alien ships before they get close enough to drop the saboteurs or the more instantly damaging bombs. The mechanics of this certainly works well enough that this could have been released on it’s own and be hailed as one of the system’s better games, although little more than a Missile Command rehash. In these early levels, the pace is quite leisurely and you should not have too much difficulty in dispatching the occasional ship the aliens send in your general direction. Later, it becomes a manic fight against almost insurmountable odds.

To help in this we are introduced in later levels to the Matter Disrupter, a highly useful facility that will destroy every ship in your range of view. Unfortunately it has a habit of blowing up, a probability of about one in five every time it’s used if memory serves (My manual has unfortunately, gone to rest in a far better place. Kensington, I hear). Should the facility be damaged, this probability rises. Despite its temperamental nature it’s clearly useful. Any damage that is taken to the base, either by bombs, saboteurs or malfunctioning disrupters at this point is automatically taken care of for you.

However, that’s about to change. The next level introduces an almost unheard of, certainly on a Spectrum, element of resource management. It starts off simply enough, again easing you in gently, with only having to assign repair crews to locations that need it. Assigning more people gets the job done faster. Simple enough, but people that are working use more oxygen than those that aren’t so you’ll have to make sure the O2 generator’s in top nick. They also need a certain amount of rest after a shift is finished, so if the crew quarters are damaged they won’t get it and they’ll work slower. They also need food, which is handled automatically at this stage, or they slow down, and eventually die off. They may be injured by bombs or saboteurs, so they’ll have to go to the medical centre, which requires more medical supplies. Oh, and while this is going on the aliens are still attacking, and getting a bit more determined about it. All you have to do for the moment is assign crews and shoot, so you should manage alright.

Next level, all hell breaks loose. Now on top of everything you have to place orders for supplies. These are delivered from a mothership somewhere off the top of the screen, through a transporter beam on the docking bay. If an alien ship flies through this, the beam is broken and the remainder of the supplies lost. This means you’ll have to keep a close eye on this while still protecting the rest of the base. The ship has a limited space, so only a certain amount of goodies can be delivered, meaning you’ll have to choose wisely.

Respite is given by the freezetime generator, which is now introduced and is a valuable ally. It does pretty much what is says on the tin, essentially stopping everything on screen, including your crosshairs, unfortunately. You can, however manage your supply situation and assign repair crews here without having to worry about the nasty aliens as well, which makes things a little easier. It comes at the cost of a huge power expenditure that is only slowly recharged, so you’ll still have to think quickly or suffer the consequences.

The final level has been sent from hell to claim your soul. It’s objective is simply to survive for one hour. And then repeat the feat five times. Good luck. It’s simply a combination of everything you’ve been doing do far but on a more intense scale. It’s difficult to beat this game. It may just be possible to survive it.

For the Spectrum this was an incredibly deep game. The only vaguely action oriented game of comparable scope was the just released Elite, and that was only available on the expensive BBC micro at the time. Psytron has a level of sophistication about it which was rarely matched on the Spectrum, graphics which well disguised the flaws inherent in the machine it was played on and provided a great challenge for even the most skilled of players. I’d say a better action / resource management game could not be found until Westwood’s Dune 2, which didn’t arrive until 1992. Certainly worth a look for any game historian, or anyone not too obsessed with eye candy to appreciate a good game.