[This piece was originally titled "Why Piracy Is Good" when I wrote it in August of 2004. I figured I'd make it gratuitously offensive clickbait this time, just for teh funz. If you don't understand the new title, start here.]
It's weird how the simplest games can have the longest stories. Today we're going to talk (well, I'm going to, anyway) about a couple of games (well, four games, but we'll get to that) that are about as Zen-basic as it's possible for electronic entertainment to be.
They're a pair of games which could be played by the one-armed dishwasher from Robin's Nest (one for the mums and dads, there), a duo that require all the brainpower of a starving dog pondering the best course of action to take with a pound of sausages that's just fallen out of an old lady's shopping bag right under his nose.
And yet, by the time we're done we'll have covered inspiration, plagiarism, moral flexibility, flagrant copyright infringement, public-spiritedness, cultural history, corporate pragmatism, collective short-sightedness and the proudest moment in your correspondent's career to date. Which is a lot of stuff, so let's get on or we'll be here all day.
Wild West Hero is one of the most esoteric games in the history of the Spectrum. It takes Robotron – not the world's most complex videogame to start with – and distils it down to its most basic essence. All the enemies except the first level's GRUNTs are discarded. The cloned human family to be rescued? Gone. The twin-joystick moving/firing mechanism? No more. There's no fire button in WWH at all, in fact – your little guy just automatically pumps out a constant stream of fire in whichever direction he's facing.
No level in Wild West Hero lasts more than about 10 seconds. Your enemies materialise onscreen and immediately start shuffling slowly but inexorably towards you. Within moments, they'll either have got you or you'll have killed them all. No other outcomes are possible. (Unless you count killing yourself by colliding with one of the static obstacles as you bolt for one of the screen's edges, there to implement the game's core tactic of turning round and massacring the bandits as they march towards you in single file.)
Bandits? Oh yeah. While your avatar is the same teeny robot dude who appears in Robotron, and the game shares the coin-op's bright, flashing neon colours and futuristic sound effects, for some reason your enemies are all big-hatted spaghetti-western cowboys, with beady yellow eyes peeking out from under their ten-gallon hats. This inexplicable thematic clash is one of the things that gives WWH its unique and strange character, but that isn't one of the things on our list, so we'll move on.
The point is, Wild West Hero owes a clear debt to Robotron, but it's also its own game. Which makes it pretty weird when you see it gradually metamorphose back into its parent.
In the early 1980s, Atarisoft (the home-software division of the then-still-massive hardware company) had put a lot of effort and money in cracking down on unlicenced home-version clones of their arcade smash hits. Eventually, though, some bright spark realised that spending loads of cash suppressing highly-skilled copies of your intellectual property was pointlessly counter-productive, when you could turn it to your advantage instead.
Here, after all, were ready-made conversions, ripe for selling and free from development costs. All Atari had to do was say to the author, "Turn it over to us and we won't sue you", stick an official badge on it and sit back and wait for the profits to start rolling in.
Among the first beneficiaries/victims of this strategy was DJL Software's Z-Man, a direct Pac-Man clone that was by far the most authentic of the dozens of Spectrum versions cluttering game-shop shelves. It's one of the great legends of the Speccy gaming era that the author, David J. Looker, was then approached by Atarisoft with the offer he couldn't refuse – "Edit this into the official Spectrum version of Pac-Man and give us it for nothing, or our lawyers will crush you like a tiny worthless bug" – and a few tweaks later the company proudly made its debut in the Speccy market with a hastily-relabelled, essentially blackmailed version of what had previously been a pirate ripoff of its most valuable licence.
(As an exciting postscript to the story, the "illegal" Z-Man incarnation of Pac-Man was subsequently given away on the covertape of Speccy magazine Your Sinclair almost 10 years later. An extensive and painstaking investigation into this baffling turn of events – that is to say, emailing the renowned scientist, adventurer and gadabout, and more relevantly former YS editor, J Nash – provided the following splendid explanation:
"This was because I liked Z-Man, and knew about Atari and the Nigel Moustache accident, and thought it would be an appropriate victory for justice and a funny in-joke to buy the world's most accurate Speccy Pac-Man for the [covertape] under its original name. Dave, slightly bemused anyone remembered the game, agreed. Inexplicably, Atarisoft failed to notice. I expect they were still busy spending all the profits from the conversion of Bump and Jump."
For more information on "the Nigel Moustache accident", see a forthcoming feature, possibly on an entirely different website. But back to our story.)
After Z-Man, DJ Looker (Shout out to the massive! – Ed) moved into "respectable" development. He coded the excellent Spectrum version of fun Atari coin-op Road Blasters (which is, coincidentally, the game without which your correspondent wouldn't be in the videogames industry at all, but that's another story), then went on to fame and fortune as Your Sinclair's covertape editor, and also, ironically enough, co-invented the highly controversial "Speedlock" fastloader/anti-copying protocol.
But this poacher-turned-gamekeeper tale isn't why piracy is good (which, particularly alert viewers who are concentrating unusually hard will recall, is what this feature is supposedly about). To get to the bottom of that particular assertion, we first need to take a small tangent.
The success of Pac-Man assured Atarisoft of the wisdom of their cunning co-opt-the-copyists policy, and the strategy was soon applied to the forbidding task of bringing Williams' awesome twin-joystick coin-op Robotron 2084 to the Sinclair machine. Most of the previous attempts at reproducing the arcade's fast-moving, action-packed mayhem on the Speccy's primitive 8-bit hardware had produced woeful results, so Wild West Hero author Paul Holmes was always going to be the man getting a midnight knock on the door from burly Atarisoft associates armed with contracts and baseball bats.
(Holmes hadn't been idle since coming up with WWH – he'd subsequently produced the heroically weird Dustman, a slicker and even more surreal variant on the theme than Wild West Hero, and one in which the player has to survive assaults from all manner of cultural detritus. Levels include several cameo appearances from Pac-Man, a stage called "A Copyright With Teeth" – in which the dustman is attacked by chomping copyright symbols – and one titled "Out Come The Heavies", where swinging doors disgorge hordes of huge green robots uncannily similar to Robotron's indestructible Hulks. These facts may or may not be coincidental. Dustman, in fact, deserves a feature all of its own, but WoS can see readers beginning to visibly age already, so we'll save that for another day.)
The result, as perceptive viewers will have figured out some time ago, is that Wild West Hero's code became the basis of the official Speccy Robotron. But that's neither the end nor the point of our story. Because despite being completed , Robotron was never released.
(It was glowingly reviewed by a games magazine, though of course these days we know that doesn't necessarily mean it was finished – it's surely just a coincidence, however, that the reviewer in question went on a few months later to co-found Future Publishing)
Atarisoft never even got round to advertising it for the Speccy (something which they did do for a whole bunch of other games whose conversions were never even started, far less finished), and the code languished ignored for years, even as the Speccy carried on for nine more years as a viable gaming platform. (The company, in fact, abandoned the Spectrum shortly after the completion of Robotron in 1984, also taking with it a fairly splendid unreleased port of another fine Williams coin-op, Moon Patrol.)
Oddly, no other magazines had so much as previewed the game, so copies of the finished code were thin on the ground – so much so that soon, even Holmes himself didn't have one. It would be almost a decade before anyone ever thought of Spectrum Robotron again.
The mid-1990s, of course, brought the birth of emulation. For the first time ever, computers were so powerful that they could accurately reproduce the behaviour of their ancestors, and the still-beloved Speccy was one of the very first subjects of the phenomenon. Soon, archive websites like World Of Spectrum began to spring up to preserve the cultural heritage of the medium. But for some games, it was already too late. Atarisoft no longer existed, neither did Personal Computer Games, and Paul Holmes didn't have a copy of his own conversion.
The only known surviving Spectrum Robotron code was an early work-in-progress alpha of Holmes', missing most of the enemy robot types (for example, there were no Brains on Wave 5, and the Spectrum's Wave 7 – where the first Tanks appear in the arcade game – simply completes itself as soon as it starts), and clearly showing the port's Wild West Hero roots. The player and the enemy robots appear onscreen in the same way they do in WWH, and destroyed robots melt away rather than exploding in a shower of particles.
At this point, in fact, apart from the title screen the game more closely resembles Wild West Hero 1.5 than it does Robotron. Which is (if you were wondering) where piracy, your reporter and his proudest moment come in.
Your correspondent, viewers, has to make a confession at this point. In the early 1980s, this writer – like pretty much everyone else, it ought to be said – was a serious and diligent software pirate. The school playgrounds of the 80s were alive with kids swapping C90 cassette tapes packed full of the latest games, 20 and 30 at a time.
(Curiously, this hugely widespread buy-one-and-copy-100 practice somehow entirely failed to destroy the entire games industry, and the Speccy had a longer commercial life than any gaming platform before or since.)
The more dedicated copyright infringers, though, also participated in nationwide piracy networks, trading tapes with complete strangers from across the country. Your correspondent, naturally (because if a job's worth doing it's worth doing properly), had a number of such underground acquaintances, one of whom was "James" from Glasgow. (Whose name has been changed to reflect the fact that I can't remember it. For all I know it actually was James.)
"James" had a contact in Atarisoft, and towards the end of 1984 had casually included copies of Robotron and Moon Patrol on one of the regular C90s despatched to your living-on-the-edge reporter. They both swiftly graduated onto your host's special "My Favourite Games" shelf, but it wasn't until nearly 12 years later that their true rarity and worth would be fully appreciated.
Y'see, chums, this writer frequently speaks up for the importance of emulation – and even outright piracy – as a preserver of culture. No other leisure medium has ever regarded its heritage so carelessly as videogaming (not even the early BBC, which would commonly record over the only copy of priceless programmes to save on tape costs), and there are countless games which have been lost to posterity forever. Without piracy, the Spectrum ports of Robotron and Moon Patrol would be among them.
Because it was only piracy that enabled your reporter to contact Paul Holmes several years ago and return his own work to him (at which point he generously allowed it to be made freely available to everyone), and even if this writer never achieves anything more worthy than that in the rest of what passes loosely for a career, he'll leave the games business a happy man. (Actually, the act of leaving the videogames business would make anyone a happy man, but that's not strictly relevant here.)
Had it been left in the sole care of the games industry, Spectrum Robotron simply wouldn't exist any more, and our cultural history deserves better treatment, and more respect, than that. The bodies which present themselves as the guardians of gaming culture aren't just incompetent at the task, they are in fact the active enemies of it.
Where ELSPA and their ilk should be doing something worthwhile to preserve gaming's heritage while there's still time, they devote themselves instead to pointlessly persecuting the very websites that are actually doing their job for them. (And to chasing idiotically after small-fry market traders, like an elephant trying to stamp on a colony of ants.)
The industry attempts, as a matter of policy, to portray emulation – not even piracy – as a mortal danger to its very existence, and is assisted in doing so by a media that unquestioningly presents the industry's side of the argument as gospel truth, and an increasingly brainwashed public ready to believe the industry's farcical propaganda about how Al-Qaeda and the IRA and Ian Huntley and the Mafia all started out by copying Playstation games.
But let's be crystal-clear about this, viewers, for the avoidance of doubt and confusion. Take it from someone who's personally been on every single side of the equation at some point in the last 20 years. Here's the truth. Write it down somewhere.
Emulation does NOT hurt the videogames industry.
Because if either of them did, then it's amazingly obvious that – after more than 10 years of the former and 25 years of the latter – the videogames industry would have been long dead by now, rather being bigger and wealthier now than it's ever been at any time. The reality is that piracy and emulation are in truth phenomena whose primary influence on gaming is to save its legacy from the greedy, narrow-minded, short-sighted recklessness of those who control the worldwide videogames industry.
Chums, the fact of the matter is that the cultural heritage of videogaming is safe only in your hands. Recent changes in the law with regard to copyright have made the position of old games even more perilous than it used to be. Now, practically any measures which gamers could take to preserve the future history of gaming are, either effectively or literally, illegal, and accordingly are becoming harder and harder to actually enact.
In the meantime, it's in that same spirit of preservation that WoS is proud to offer the downloads below as an illustrative, iNTeRacTIVe accompaniment to this feature. Enjoy them while you still can.