ZX Spectrum Retro Review - Penetrator

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, Spectrum gaming was so new and, ahem, basic, that software houses felt the need to show off that their latest game was ‘written entirely in machine language, and takes up almost all of the 48K memory.’ And it was into this brave new world that Melbourne House released Penetrator in 1982, boldly proclaiming it ‘the fastest and most exciting game for your 48K Spectrum.’ A bold claim, Melbourne House; shall we put it to the test?

Penetrator is a straight up clone of Konami’s Scramble arcade game, a sideways scrolling shooter in which your mission is to fly a heavily modified Bond Bug through four defence rings and blow up an illegal cache of neutron bombs. In order to succeed you must navigate treacherous landscapes, shoot or avoid the surface to air rockets which will take pot-shots at you, and blow up the radar bases which are tracking your progress.

First impressions are mixed: the first thing you’re treated to on loading it is a brief firework display, followed by an animation of somebody writing the game title on an etch-a-sketch and some very irritating sirens. Thankfully, in 1982 you’d have just spent ten minutes praying to the Chuntey gods so it would take more than an annoying sound effect to make you switch the thing off. Also, you get the option to disable the sirens, which is nice.

It has a slightly odd control system, in that the same key is used for firing your forward lasers, and if held down, accelerating. Although the game is technically Kempston compatible, I couldn’t figure out how to fly the Bond Bug by joystick and not die horribly; thankfully keyboard controls are a little more forgiving. Ok, I hear you say, but what about the game? Well, Penetrator sits squarely in the ‘less is more’ camp of game design; for three out of the four main levels there are only three sprites – the radar bases and missiles, and the Bond Bug - plus your bombs and laser beams. Sound wise you are treated to just enough to do the game justice: a few different engine noises, weapon sounds and explosions.

So is it any good? Is it, indeed, fast and/or exciting? Well yes, it actually is. After a couple of rounds to get to grips with the controls I was able to blast my way through the first couple of levels pretty quickly. That’s not to say it’s easy, mind you; the puke inducing green artificial tunnels of level 3 take being penetrated very seriously, and will do their best to wipe you out at any opportunity. And then in level four we are introduced to a fourth sprite – the instructions refer to them as paratroopers, but they look more like giant disembodied skulls of some sort. And the buggers will laugh at you if they see you wipe out.

You get five ships, and although having to start at the beginning of each level when you lose one can be frustrating, it’s enough to get through the four levels once you get your eye in. But the fifth and final level – a short one where all you have to do is drop a bomb into the illegal weapon dump – is a killer. Because your Bond Bug is constantly moving forwards, you only get one pass before slamming yourself into the back wall, repeatedly, until the last of your lives is used up. If the force is not with you at this point, you’ve pretty much had it.

Succeed, however, and you get 1000 bonus points, an extended firework display, and the momentary feeling that you’ve actually beaten the game – until it points out that you’re still deep in enemy territory in a Bond Bug, and gently shoves you out the door, whereupon you have to do the whole thing again – backwards.

Penetrator is very much pared back to the bare minimum in every respect – except gameplay. I’m sure faster and more exciting games have appeared for your 48K Spectrum since its release, but it remains evidence that if your game plays well, and has the right difficulty level and learning curve, great graphics are not really necessary.

And should you be better at it than me and find the learning curve and overall difficulty level not quite tough enough, Penetrator was also the first game I owned that had a built in level editor – but I’ll let someone else review that, I’ve given myself RSI from so many attempts at level 4…

Review by Steve Trower



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