And so we come to the third, and final, Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future, the one that runs on that little book-sized computer with daft rubber keys; the one that runs on the ZX Spectrum.
Now, whilst it’s true that the three 8-bit versions of this title are all different it’s clear from the moment you start playing that the Spectrum version has a great deal in common with the Amstrad CPC version and almost nothing in common with the Commodore 64 incarnation. As with the CPC game, we have Dan dropped into the asteroid with a gun and engaging in platform-and-ladders gameplay. However, there are many things that make this distinct from the CPC title and they are more than worth noting, because they’re the reason that it’s far, far better.
For a start, the graphics look great. In fact, even today Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future is held up as an example of How To Do Spectrum Graphics With Colour And Stuff. Dan, the Treens and other sprites are green, the backgrounds are dark blue and foreground and impassable objects like pillars, doorways are drawn in detailed colour. There’s even some background animation with lights flashing and up/down arrows scrolling on the transporters. There is next to no colour clash and the game is absolutely gorgeous to look at. The CPC’s bright colour scheme was shunned for a dark and dingy look and the C64 version used the usual naturalistic-but-drab palette of that computer but here everything looks colourful and bright without taking anything from the atmosphere.
Also to be commended is the way the game has been set-out. There is no Digby to rescue (he stays on the ship in this version, sensible fellow) and instead Dan searches through the asteroid’s interior, using some kind of up/down gravity transport things instead of stairs, shooting Treens (which run around carrying guns and shooting Dan – no flying or fisticuffs here) looking for self-destruct keys to grab and take to a room where they make big globe things go all glowy. Seems if you do this with enough of them the asteroid is destroyed and the Mekon’s plans are thoroughly foiled. Each time a key is brought to this room a door will slide open somewhere opening-up new areas of the asteroid to explore to find more keys in a literal unlocking of the whole of the gaming area. These areas have little graphical differences but the programmers have used clever techniques to make them seem completely different. For example, Area 2 has a more “open” environment than Area 1with jumps Dan must perform or fall into the floor below and Area 3 has slightly “fatter” gravity transport things (that’s the best description I can muster, alright? They look quite good) and flying droid enemies which can’t be destroyed and instead are only stopped moving by Dan’s laser shots meaning he can never clear the level of them.
Like the CPC version, Dan is sent to a useless “prison” without a door if he’s captured. Unlike the CPC version, Dan doesn’t have lives. Instead the game is played against a time limit. If Dan runs out of energy, falls too far or is captured by a “super Treen” in the later areas (at the start Treens who touch Dan just drain his energy) then he is knocked out for ten minutes before waking up in the prison and carrying-on with his mission. It’s only game over when the time runs out. This is an excellent system and creates a game that’s tense and challenging rather than frustrating.
In fact, in this version of Dan Dare, everything works. The game plays fast and never really gets dull with the challenge constantly evolving, the player has a more solid control over the smooth-moving main character as opposed to the all-over-the-place feel of the Amstrad CPC version, and it looks gorgeous and (more importantly) Dan looks like Dan, the Treens look like Treens and the Mekon (who appears, as far as I’ve seen anyway, in a communicator screen in the bottom right of the display) looks fantastic. The only thing that lets it down is the sound which is extremely basic but that really doesn’t matter.
So, in the end, I have to say the Spectrum version is easily the best Dare for me. The Commodore version is something different and probably more worthwhile if you prefer a more leisurely pace and something a little more cerebral whilst the CPC version, to be honest, can’t be recommended at all unless you really hate Dare and have always fantasised about him being a little fat man in an ugly game.
And that’s that. I wrote this last review with a stinking cold so I hope you’re all happy. Join me next time when I play something old on an archaic platform and then write about it. See youse.