ZX Spectrum

One of the finest 8-bit computer games ever made. Even better (IMHO) than Starquake, which was penned by the same guy (Steve Crow). A perfectly balanced mix of exploration, trading, planning and shooting things. Requires fast reflexes, patience and map-making skills. Everything in the game (down to the smallest animation) has a purpose. This game has meticulous attention to detail that would make a Swiss clockmaker weep.

The premise

The game takes placed in the cursed kingdom of Torot, in the Dark Ages. The object of the game is to find the four charms and trade them with the evil queen to obtain the firestone (however this will still only get you the bad ending - you must steal the firestone to get the good one*). The charms are held by certain denizens of the land, who will trade them for other items. So you have to trade to find out who wants what, then get it for them - which requires a lot of dangerous exploration. Things are complicated further by only having four inventory slots.

The world

The game world consists of 512 unique screens (huge for a 48k game). The viewpoint is effectively the same as Sabre Wulf's, although the scenery is more detailed and varied (your quest takes you through towns, caves, forests, farms and cliffs). The player is constantly attacked by ghosts (many types, including vikings and villagers). They can fight the ghosts with "dragons teeth" (basically a rapid fire shot weapon) - should they find any. (There are magical traps that can steal your magic power though). Ammo is not unlimited. They also have to contend with dying of exposure (i.e. your health degrades slowly over time), magical traps, and fire.

In some areas, there are tunnel entrances that allow you to travel to an adjacent location, even if there is a wall in the way. Usually the route requires you to traverse several obstacles before you reach the destination though.

Traps & Bubbles
Magic traps move along a path - contact with them saps you of all your dragon's teeth. This leaves you defenseless (and is also a pain in the arse if you were going to use the teeth to trade). Bubbles move randomly around the screen, and sap all but a sliver of your health if popped. They can be killed though, if shot enough.

Fire is one of the coolest things in the game. In its normal state, the small fires around the levels act as fatal obstacles (for instance in some locations you have to perform a pixel-perfect slalom to get around them). Other fires blink on and off, requiring timing to cross them when they're embers. Some are controlled by switches. The most ingenious kind however are the magic fires. These appear to be frozen, unless you run up to them fast enough, causing them to spark into life. The trick therefore is to run up to them and then quickly step back before being burned. The fire will then act like a flashing fire (allowing you to cross when it is "off"). Now, not only is this a difficult move, requiring lightning reflexes, but you also have to figure it out for yourself. For a long time I assumed that these fires were impassable, until I discovered how to unfreeze them by chance. (There are also portcullises, which are the same deal, but block the doors of certain buildings).

Small milestones in the path, when run past, trigger hidden switches which turn fires on and off. Again, you have to figure it out for yourself.

As well as the aforementioned Dragon's Teeth, there are magic items (scrolls, etc.) that top up your ammo, food items for your health, and other items of some sort that top up your "trust" bar (explained below). There are also royal seals and bags of coins, which can be used for trade. There are many other items in the game, corresponding to the professions of the various people you meet (to trade for the charms of course).


Hoo boy. On your travels, you can go into people's houses, where you can barter for information, provisions, and to teleport from one area to another (all through a nifty cursor-driven interface). You can attempt to steal things (which requires you to select the item you have to trade, the item you want, and the theft icon - no mean feat when guiding a cursor with a rubber keyboard). Oh, and you have a "trust" bar, which effectively acts as a timer, to prevent you waiting in a house for ages. When it runs out you can't even enter people's houses, and you have to replenish it somehow.

Information gives you hints as to who wants what item. Provisions are the same as the ones dotted around the wilderness. The teleport system requires you to enter a pictoral password to travel to another location. Pointlessly, there are some traders (farmers) who will, for a price, tell you the name of your current location. There are also some houses that can be used to store your items (handy later on).

If the trader notices you stealing, you get dragged in front of a Reeve. They then spin the wheel of justice three times. You have to stop the cursor on innocent - or you lose a life. It's a pretty harsh world were you can lose up to three lives just for stealing a loaf of bread!

Interestingly, there is hardly any text in the game - the entire trading and magic systems are represented iconically.

With its mixture of survival and character interaction, Firelord is an obvious precursor to the Midwinter games.

*Because if you steal the firestone, it means that you don't give the charms to the queen, and therefore she can't have eternal youth. Oh, and then you have to give the firestone to the unicorn, whose home is only accesible via magic. Obviously.