When home computing was 8-bit, and only the lucky few had 128K to randomly access, budget software labels were born. One of the first, and arguably the most successful was Mastertronic. Formed in 1983, the company pioneered the pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap budget software market in the mid-1980s with its £1.99 range of games. The men behind the company were not software developers, or even great fans of the games that ended up under the Mastertronic label, but they were kings of distribution. From humble beginnings, when games were sent to anyone who would take them, eventually most retailers began to realise that you could shift a lot of cheap units to eager kids unwilling to risk several weeks pocket money on a full-price movie tie-in game from US Gold or Ocean, but with just about enough cash-flow to fork out for budget titles.

The games sold, and Mastertronic delivered more, to the tune of almost 150 titles across its platforms in the first 18 months. Even the extra pound on the price tag for the Mastertronic Added Dimension (MAD) label couldn't stop the kids lapping the titles up - those 150 or so titles turning over a handy two and a half million units. Taking a random month as an example, in January 1986, the Sinclair User magazine list of the top 30 best-selling games for the month contained 6 Mastertronic titles. Not a bad effort in a market swollen with rivals, and richer rivals at that (US Gold, Ocean, and Virgin all feature in the same chart).

The quality of the games was undeniably patchy, and sometimes you really did get what you paid for - what else would you expect from a label that would take games from unknown amateurs and debutant programmers, send back a royalty cheque to the writer, and publish a game, with newly recorded sound and artwork, all within three weeks. While the sales soared, Mastertronic's average review score was never on the same plane; Your Sinclair magazine reviews rank the company 78 out of 105 whose games were reviewed, with an average mark of 63.75%.

But there were some real gems in the range, and for every duff title, there was a Spellbound, a BMX Racers, or a Kikstart. These were the games I spent my money on. And when I'd spent all my money on them, I retreated to my room, switched on my Amstrad CPC 6128 (oh yes, I was one of the lucky 128K few alright. Mind you, I couldn't afford many games on disk, and don't talk to me about that green-screen monitor - just as well I managed to persuade my Dad, after a persistent campaign, to shell out for a colour modulator), slotted in a Mastertronic cassette, admired the loading screen, admired it again when the first load didn't work, read the instructions, and settled down to play:

Nonterraqueous (1985)

It means "neither the earth nor the sea" (sort of), and was my first taste of Latin. It was also my first taste of the weird mind of the 8-bit developer. The aim was to guide your robotic seeker through the maze of I don't know how many screens, hundreds it seemed, avoiding absolutely anything else that appeared on the screen. One touch of a photon thruster and you were gone. Ridiculously hard, but my first ever game, and therefore a watershed moment.

Spellbound (1985)

If you had something to do that took around 11 minutes, this was the ideal game to load while you did it. And even if you did nothing, it was worth the wait. Taking the part of the Magic Knight, your task was to release Gimbal the wizard, and return the other characters to their rightful places in the castle. A 2D split-screen puzzler with what seemed like a huge number of screens, a beautifully designed windowed menu system, and basic character interaction (Florin the dwarf started the game asleep, Thor was unhappy until you brought him his hammer, and the NPCs you met would generally fall asleep or become hungry in what seemed a very sophisticated piece of programming), perhaps the all-time Mastertronic classic, along with its predecessor Finders Keepers, and sequels Knight Tyme and Stormbringer. The Knight's helmet always looked more like oversized teeth to me, mind. Fully deserving of its "Sinclair User Classic" and "Amtix! Accolade" awards.

Feud! (1987)

Published under the Bulldog label in 1987, Feud! had the kind of leftfield imagination and originality that the big labels rarely matched. As Learic the wizard, it was your job to wander around, and collect ingredients for spells. Once combined in your cauldron, you could take them with you, find your brother Leanoric, and do battle with him. Two slightly skeletal avatars charted your respective health levels, but generally, no matter how well you did, he always seemed to be one step ahead. At least in my version of the game he was.

Mastertronic lived on in one form or another, including Virgin Mastertronic after a 1988 buyout, until 1992.

rose-tinted memories of childhood
tacgr.emuunlim.com/ - the Amstrad CPC Games Resource