Saturday 5 July 2014

Jumping Jack for the Sinclair Spectrum

I love me some nostalgia. Back in our final year at school, a 48K Sinclair Spectrum  mysteriously turned up in our classroom. With it was a single tape and only one game that would agree to load. The title? 1983's Jumping Jack by the infamous Imagine Software.

Like all software titles dating from that period, the graphics and sound were rudimentary but functional. The gameplay simple, bordering on the primitive. And yet, horrendously addictive. Us young hip things in the Class of '93 may have poured scorn on the Speccy's abilities. It couldn't hold a candle to our Amigas, our 386s, our MegaDrives, yet lunch time after lunch time we queued up and crowded round our rubber-keyed chum to see if anyone else could reach stage 12. What was the fuss about?

Jumping Jack is a single-screen platform game. Of sorts. Between you and the top are eight moving floors. Travelling conveyor-style in both directions are gaps. The aim is to jump through them to get to the top floor and thereby the next level. However, every time you jump a new hole appears randomly, making your journey increasingly tricky. Not to worry though, should you miss a hole and bang your head on the ceiling or fall through a gap you'll be temporarily stunned. You only lose a life if you fall back to your starting point. Adding to the fun are a number of peculiar-looking enemies. These include a man with a blunderbuss, an airliner, an axe, and a host of amorphous blobs. Here's a sample of them. If they touch you you're temporarily stunned, and it takes Jack a longer to recover from them than a simple fall through the floor. It adds another level of strategy to what is already a tricky game.

I'm sure my description doesn't do this lost classic justice, so here's how it plays. And if you want to give it a whirl, this is the place you need to go.

Is there anything more that can be said? There's doesn't seem much else to it. Your flickery little stick man hardly condenses centuries worth of dodgy cultural codes. His surreal enemies betray nothing but random, if slightly Pythonesque choices. Yet again, like most video games of a bygone age they resist reading because they're all about the gameplay. While there's plenty to be said about that in and of itself which certainly applies to a culturally "thin" games like Jumping Jack, I'm going to take this in a slightly different direction.

Jumping Jack was published by Imagine, but was not written in-house. Nevertheless, I think the game can work as an allegory of not just Imagine's fate, but the new rapaciousness that consumed business culture in the 1980s. Imagine, set up in 1982, lasted about 18 months before collapsing under heavy debts. It published reams of, at that time, good quality software but the company's cash was blown on salubrious offices, overstaffing, super-flashy marketing (again, by the standards of the day) and luxury cars for the bosses. It lived beyond its means and spectacularly went bust after some daft business decisions - such as buying up much of Britain's cassette-making capacity prior to Christmas 1983 so rivals would be hard pressed to manufacture games in sufficient quantities. It was less risk-taking and more risk-seeking behaviour. It couldn't pay its bills, nor could Imagine pitch for new contracts as its reputation spread. So down the tubes it went.

Jumping Jack, bizarrely, prefigured Imagine's fate in video game form. The first level, without the enemies, is easy enough. Jump up from one level to the next, making note of where the new gaps are and avoiding/utilising them where necessary. On and on it goes until you have five enemies racing across the screen. It requires careful timing, careful jumping, knowledge of where the gaps are and will be a few seconds hence, and the proximity of that bloody dinosaur. One can almost work out a strategy to get you safely to the upper floors, but as the risks multiply a simple misstep can screw you up. There's one floor to go, you jump too early and wham, you're down. A train, a witch, a pencil run you over in short order, keeping you stunned until a gap comes along and drops you to the next level. This dazes you further, another enemy comes along, and ... you get the picture. One slight mistake can escalate into a crisis for Jack. One moment you're at the threshold of the next level, and less than ten seconds later drops and enemies force your right down to the bottom of the screen, leaving you twitching on your back in pixelated agony.

It's fitting Jumping Jack was one of Imagine's last games as an independent entity. The temptation is to cut corners and recklessly dash for the top, but if one doesn't take care hubris is followed swiftly by nemesis. In Imagine's case, it took on the form of bankruptcy. For Jack, it's a blue snake that turns the screen purple.


Unknown said...

Great article, I love how you paint that nostalgic scene to really put the experience into context.

If you have any more inspiration for classic game reviews then I say make it a feature on the blog, could differentiate a whole different spin on things.

Unknown said...

Just followed the tab, and you have done.. My bad, looks like I got some reading to do over the weekend.