Sabre Wulf (Ultimate, 1984)
Ah, that heady scent of inevitability - much as I like to dance to my own beat, no self-respecting Spectrum list would be complete without the game that set the ZX world alight in that heady summer of 1984 - both for gameplay and cost.
For this was the game that introduced the £9.95 price point to ZX gaming. Previously, while cartridge games and US computer games had been priced in the stratosphere (at least to us young teenagers) the Sinclair market had been steadily pegged at £5-6, with the odd £7.95 title raising eyebrows. Previous Ultimate games, from its 16K original series through to Atic Atac and Lunar Jetman, had all gone on sale for £5.50, and the hike to almost a tenner (around £25 at 2012 prices) did not pass without sniping from press and punters alike. Just as well the game was so damned good then.
As with Atic Atac, screens were static rather than scrolling, with Sabre Wulf taking place on a 16x16 screen grid on a single level, making it a simpler and more tractable game to map. 28 of these 256 screens formed single complete rooms, and four of these 28 contained the pieces of the sacred amulet needed to escape the jungle, causing great excitement and a very bad rhyme:
You start with five lives, and more are scattered around, which is just as well as the jungle is brutal. You do have a sword, but unless the sword touches the enemies before you do it's time for a sit down and a new life - no energy levels here, and the vertical passages especially are treacherous to navigate, as they're too narrow to pass anything without having a close encounter of the fatal kind. Then there are the five unkillable enemies... hippos like to sleep unless disturbed, but cannot normally be passed, while rhinos patrol corridors charging from one end to the other and back. Both can be repelled temporarily by your sabre, as can the pesky knights who wander randomly about the maze but do at least have the grace to flash you (... nah) when in line with a segment of the amulet (I've yet to be able to make use of this, but apparently it does help.) Not so the Sabre Wulf itself, which will pause for a second then pounce whether you're armed or not, though luckily this beast only patrols the snowy passageway at the South of the map. Finally, stay too long on any screen and you will be consumed by fire...
Lucky then that the jungle also contains randomly flowering orchids, which when caught in bloom grant you temporary invulnerability, even letting you pass through those pesky mammals and knights. Like all good plant-derived products though, there are always side-effects, from slowing you down to speeding you up or reversing your movements, or even causing you to sit-down and meditate for a while...
Still my favourite 2D maze game, I don't think I got more than two pieces back then, and may have set my personal best today, with 2 pieces and 64% explored. I have in the meantime completed the game, but on a PC remake with 4 screens in view at any time, which much reduces the chance of being instakilled on entering a new screen.