ZX81 Mail Order Games

I didn’t get my first computer until 1983 – a second-hand Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K from a family friend who was “upgrading” to an Acorn Electron (the fool! He later bought an Archimedes as I recall too!) – so missed out on what almost appears to be the Raspberry Pi of the early eighties, the ZX81. I’m currently enjoying going through a lot of old computer magazines from the period (this is not a midlife crisis) which is why you’re seeing a surge in posting (one or two a week! Slow down man!) and a similar theme amongst the posts too. It’s also why I created the new Retro category for the site.

I want to capture for posterity some of the adverts for ZX81 games I’ve been seeing a lot of recently and, in particular, I want to focus on mail order games for this post. The early eighties appears to have been a great time to be a hobbyist programmer with a pile of blank cassettes just ready to record the latest masterpiece in 1-16K of memory onto. I remember a similar surge in amateur coders creating and publishing on the cheap with the Amiga in the early nineties too. These days? Well, apps from a phone’s app store just doesn’t really have the same feel. But then I’m old.

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The first advert I’m going to highlight is for two reasons: firstly, the content, which should be blindingly obvious. Secondly, the company: Automata Ltd. Because they were based in Portsmouth. I’m from Portsmouth in case that reasoning seems a little odd.

The content: three cassettes described as being “adult games for jaded minds” containing 8-10 games on each.

  • Can of Worms for the over 16s includes Acne, Vasectomy, Smut, Hitler, Dole, Royal Flush, Reagan, and Ps ‘n’ Qs. Hitler and Smut on the same tape? Surely not!
  • Love and Death is one for over 18s and includes Seduction, Conception, Birth, Rubic’s Pube, On The Job, Pox, Dr Death, and God. There’s something almost “Meaning of Life”-esque about these titles.
  • The Bible is for over 16s too and includes Genesis, Adam & Eve, Noah, Plagues, Exodus, Holy Moses, Sodom, Goliath, Jonah, and Bethlehem. I suppose a game based on the book of Numbers was probably saved for a cassette called Unending Tedium.

Are Automata still in Portsmouth at the same address? No, they’re not. These days it’s an estate agent’s and a slimming clinic. That’s a shame; I feel it deserves a museum.

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I did own one Automata game for the Spectrum: Pimania. My memory of it is that it was incredibly weird and written in BASIC so you could break into the game and read the code quite easily. Not that this helped in the slightest.

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The next mail order advert is for Michael Orwin’s ZX81 Cassettes and these do appear to be of better quality than the previous ad’s offerings from the screenshots. The first cassette runs on the 1K ZX81 and has a mix of BASIC and machine code programs: React, Invaders, Phantom Aliens, Maze of Death, Planet Lander, Bouncing Letters, Bug Splat, I Ching, Mastermind, Robots, and Basic Hangman. The second cassette contains only BASIC programs and requires an immense 16K in which to run any of Othello, Awari, Laser Bases, Word Mastermind, Rectangles, Crash, Roulette, Pontoon, Penny Shoot, and Gun Command.

Michael Orwin lived at 26 Brownlow Road, Willesden, London, NW10 9QL. I don’t know if he still does but if he doesn’t and you do then you’re living in the former home of a ZX81 programmer! You might want to ask the council for a blue plaque for the wall.

And now for some smaller mail order ads.

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Maths Education from Math-Ed, 20 Wandle Road, London SW17. Devised by a professional maths educator! Who wouldn’t want that game? I mock, but probably most ZX81 owners did.

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ZX81 1K Starter Pack from Second Foundation, 22 Bramber, Belgrave, Tamworth, Staffs B77 2LL. Having experienced the full audio joy of the more advanced Spectrum I can only wonder at just how appalling the sound generation program contained on this cassette must have been.

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A mixture of hardware and software advertised by Digital Integration, 22 Ash Church Road, Ash, Aldershot, Hants GU12 6LX. A real-time, 3D Fighter Pilot flight simulator must be good to fetch that high price of £3.45.

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Educational software in the form of Geography, Learning Fun, and Art and Fun, all for the 16K ZX81 and all from the mysterious-sounding A. Parsons, Dept S, 23 Coxhill Gardens, River, Dover, Kent.

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And more educational software, this time from Rose Cassettes, 148 Widney Lane, Solihull, West Midlands, B91 3LH. GCE ‘O’ Level Maths, Junior Maths, and Junior English all sounding super-enticing.

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Now some ZX81 Quality Software that sadly didn’t include any quality proofreading from Bridge Software (U), 36 Fernwood, Marple Bridge, Stockport, Cheshire SK6 5BE. Graphics and Statistics make up two of the general titles on offer but Galaxy Invaders (or Galaxay Invaders if you really want) sounds like the stand-out cassette.

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Some games with a difference in the form of ZX81 Fortune Teller (including Tarot Cards, I Ching, ESP Tests, The 52 Cards, Biorythms (I don’t think that’s how you should spell it), Numerology, Ouija Invaders, and Mandala) from Fylesoft, 114 Harris Street, St Helens WA10 2NP. What’s that difference? I’m glad you asked! You have to type them in yourself. Which, actually, is probably more fun and definitely of more use than actually playing the things.

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Finally, something for all those people who can’t decide whether they want to invest in the market or engage in some role playing with a wizard and a dwarf from Algor, Dovercourt, St James’ Road, Northampton. Mines and Monsters coupled with Stockmarket on one cassette; Shelob’s Lair and Economy Game team up on a second cassette; the third cassette sees the marriage of Cheops’ Tomb to Commodity Game. Yeah, I think those are some weird combinations too. Well, that was the early eighties I guess.

Author: Mark

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3 Comments

  1. I remember Pimania for the ZX81. Never got very far with it. (No reflection on it as a computer game — I was always just rubbish at computer games.)

    My favourite game for the ZX81, however, was “3D Monster Maze” featuring an actually scary dinosaur.

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  2. I’ve just got my copy of “Love and Death”. It’s …. different. 🙂 I’ve only tried “seduction” so far (and listened to the silly intro speech of course….). If you want a copy I may be able to make one for you, I don’t think Automata would mind!

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    • Might be worth posting it to YouTube or SoundCloud or whatever the kids are posting things on these days. I imagine some people might be interested.

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