One of the first games issued for the Spectrum, by Sinclair favourites, Melbourne House has stood the test of time very well. Despite the huge software base that now supports the Spectrum, Penetrator is still probably in the top ten or so of most playable and most addictive games.
The game is a fairly faithful 'steal' from the arcade favourite, Scramble, and, despite the obvious limitations of the Spectrum, even using the full 48K, stands comparison very favourably with versions on dedicated games machines. The object of the game is to fly your fighter through a series of caverns, all stoutly defended by guided missiles and policed with radar bases and 'paratroopers'. As the jet starts on the screen, the landscape begins to scroll inexorably from right to left - once your mission has started, it is impossible to stop for more than, at most, a second, as more hazards, in the form of missiles and difficult jagged terrain, appear before you.
The program starts with the usual attractive Melbourne House loading screen and, once loaded, after a fine display of screen fireworks, a menu offers a choice of three modes: play, train or create. The trainer mode is a welcome innovation - because of the complexity of the cavern system, it is very useful to be able to acquaint oneself with the layout whilst being able to squander an infinite number of lives. There are various tricks and techniques which need to be learned in order to mae progress and the trainer is ideal for this. There is a choice of practising on any of the four cntinuous stages of the game, and once a stage has been completed, you are automatically moved onto the next phase, and so on. Throughout your practice, a score is kept, depending on the number of missiles, radar bases and paratroopers destroyed, so you can check on how your skills are improving before you date to move to the game proper.
The actual game is for one or two players and each one of the players' five lives starts with a rousing battle stations. The use of sound, although fairly limited in nature (jet sounds and explosions) is good, particularly when amplified. The keyboard control layout is one of the now standard types, wth Q/A for up and down, and P/O for thrust/brake, which are sensible for finding in a hurry. Your weapons systems comprise bombs (any key on the bottom row) and missiles (P again, when pressed rapidly, which is quite an annoyance when using a programmable joystick, since the stick has to be jerked rapidly to differentiate between fire and thrust). The use of a joystick does simplify movement tremendously, since the game requires a fair amount of dexterity on the keyboard. Unfortunately it is a programmable stick which is needed, since there is no option offered for any of the standard joysticks.
The graphics are fairly unsophisticated, compared with the best offered by Ultimate and Quicksilva and it would be interesting to see the quality of a 1984 version on this score.
Once you have negotiated all four phases, your task is to destroy the neutron-bomb store, and then return the way you came. Easily said, but it will take you many many hours of play on the trainer before you get anywhere near proficient enough to even reach the bomb store, much less destroy it and return to base. However, such is the addictive quality of Penetrator that you will keep trying, again and again, if only to better your top score. There is a high score table provided, of course.
If you are finally triumphant, or if you find the cave system just too difficult, the game boasts a unique customising option, which enables you to simply edit the landscapes and bases to your own liking - as easy or as tough as you can manage, with as many or as few missile bases as needed.
Once created, a landscape can be saved to tape, so in effect Penetrator consists of a series of Scramble-type games of differing degrees of difficulty at the player's whim.
One of the Spectrum classics, and hopefully one of the first to be upgraded for the QL!