Now and then someone produces a game that's oh-so-slightly 'different' enough to become a cult classic, because it combines a familiar game format with a living legend of the scene itself. Back in the Eighties, we had A Day In The Life, which took on the daily routine of Sir Clive Sinclair, the British scientist who invented the Sinclair Spectrum. And in 2022, Team Moritz has put out Jonathan Trick Or Treat, a imaginative platform game which features our favourite Speccy coder Jonathan Cauldwell.
Alright, who said "Who's Jonathan Cauldwell?" Where have you been? Jonathan Cauldwell is one of the stalwarts of the modern Spectrum gaming scene with a comprehensive catalogue of games he has authored. If you're familiar with Cronosoft, the physical Spectrum games company, it's no exaggeration to say that almost all of its early titles were a product of his imagination. This is a man who has been programming Spectrum games for over four decades now, and, although he is most well known for his Egghead series and his Arcade Game Designer utility, those are really only a quarter of the story. Many of his games have been completely original and, indeed, have featured prominently in lists of the Best New Games for the Spectrum year upon year. So if you've never checked out Quantum Gardening, Telly Heroes, Izzy Wizzy and The Fantastic Mr. Fruity then you really should. Enough said.
Jonathan Trick Or Treat is a pretty simple concept. There are just three control keys - left, right and jump - and these put you in control of Jonathan who is depicted, in the same way as Day In The Life, as a giant head, complete with ears that waggle as he glides around. As you might expect from its title, the game has a Halloween theme, and Jonathan is charged with collecting up the candies from a succession of flick-screens, accessed by walking from the left to the right of each. There are a number of baddies that float around and should be avoided if possible; however you're not immediately offed if you do collide with them; instead Jonathan's energy is depleted. However, it's a one life only game, so you do need to be careful.
There are some obvious nods to Jonathan's software portfolio in here which is good fun for those of us "in the know" and it's also one of those platform games that just sort of "works" due to its staggering simplicity. Even your great-granny could play this without reading the instruction card beforehand.
There's a whole host of music to listen to during the game, including a spooky rendition of Tubular Bells (from The Exorcist movie). There are also some curious effects which flash the Spectrum's border black and red - something which initially confused me when playing the game via emulation as I thought - for many minutes! - that they were an indication that the game was still loading in! But I'm sure you won't be so stupid. Well, not now you've read this anyway.
Jonathan Trick Or Treat is designed with Jonathan's own Arcade Game Designer suite, which seems fitting in one way (using the author's own tool to design a game about the author) but a missed opportunity in another. That's because what I have always enjoyed about Jonathan's actual games is that, when he releases something new (unless it's got Egghead in its title) you can rarely call it. You literally never know what to expect because he (Jonathan) is obviously a creative genius. That's not just me gushing; it's just a case of credit where it's due. I would have loved to see Jonathan Trick Or Treat show a bit of the same imagination, rather than just be the pretty generic platformer that it is.
That's not to say it's bad though. A few years ago, Bitmapsoft released a platform game called Octukitty which was said to be based upon the life and times of Octavius Kitten, one of the only female YouTube stars to play and review Spectrum games. At the time I commented there that I felt that the connection between her and that game seemed pretty spurious. But that's not the case here: Jonathan Trick Or Treat works a lot better. Team Moritz has taken a deep dive into Jonathan's software portfolio and designed a platformer around it, rather than design a game first and then just add his name to it. And I suspect that Team Moritz actually released this, primarily, for Jonathan himself, and the fact that the rest of us can enjoy it was a secondary consideration.
The reason I say that is because you may remember the story of the ill-fated ZX Vega Plus console, which was crowdfunded to the tune of half a million pounds by Spectrum fans but ultimately resulted in almost every backer losing whatever money they had invested. There's a whole series of YouTube videos dedicated to this retrogaming fiasco, but during all the claims and counter-claims as it all fell apart, Jonathan essentially backed the wrong horse and staked his own reputation on the device's success. Thus, when it didn't succeed, and when a lot of people lost their money, he became as big a target as the fraudsters themselves. It was all pretty unfair, and I personally found it comparable to the vitriol I was faced with when, in the past, I would have to tell clients who had lost £100,000 in a scam, that any legal action would probably cost at least £30,000 to pursue with little chance of success. "You lawyers are just as bad as the fraudsters then!" they would rage. And whilst it was understandable they were traumatised by their loss, it always felt pretty unfair.
Anyway, in the aftermath of the ZX Vega Plus disaster, Jonathan Cauldwell was absent from the Spectrum scene for a while. Which was a great shame, because he might well have produced even more great games if he'd been spared the stress of dealing with that aftermath. Hence I really think Team Moritz have also done a great thing here in providing a reconciliatory "Don't worry, Jonathan, the scene as a whole does still love what you have created" production. I don't imagine Jonathan Trick Or Treat is going to fly off the virtual shelves because, like I said, it's pretty run-of-the-mill stuff, but it succeeds at what it is, a nod to a modern God of Speccy programming. And there's nothing not to like about that.