ZX Spectrum

Somewhere in the dark and nasty regions, where nobody goes, stands an ancient castle. Deep within this dank and uninviting place, lives Berk, overworked servant of "the thing upstairs"

But that's nothing compared to the horrors that lurk beneath the trap door, for there is always something down there, in the dark, waiting to come out...

And so begins every episode of classic kids TV show 'The Trapdoor.' Merging horror with slapstick, bold claymation characters and the comedic talents of Willie Rushton, its deservedly one of the most popular British kids shows of the 80s.

But this isn't review an awesome kids show day, so let's have a look at the ZX Spectrum game that was based on it.

Released in 1986, the game essentially picks up where the TV series left off. Playing as the show's down-trodden hero, Berk, Its your job to prepare a number of different meals for the unseen 'Thing Upstairs.' Keep him happy and Berk will escape with his well-earned wages, but make one too many mistakes and all Berk will receive is the sack. Tough gig.

To help Berk create the various dishes he'll need, you'll have to make use of the various ingredients and bits of equipment which have been liberally scattered around the castle. Generally these will only take you so far though, so you'll also have to work out how to harness the dubious 'talents' of the various weird creatures that lurk beneath the castle's trapdoor.

Oh, and if that wasn't enough, the Thing Upstairs also has a bit of a short fuse too. This means everything you do is against a strict time limit. Oh Globbits.

So why do I love The Trapdoor so much? well, as a child i was a big fan of the show, so I think i was instantly won over by aesthetics. Deploying huge sprites that completely fill the screen with colour, the game is easily among the most visually appealing titles on the Spectrum. Not only did it look great, but these large sprites also managed to avoid the clashing foreground/background colours that affected so many Spectrum titles. This was very impressive stuff.

On top of that, it also featured some ingenious sound design. As a relatively limited 48k game, the sound was limited to the Speccy's buzzer (as opposed to the proper PSG chip included in the 128k models,) but from the beepy rendition of the TV show's theme tune to the ominous lo-fi roar of the Thing Upstairs' orders, all of the sounds seem to be measured and fit the visuals appropriately.

As gorgeous as The Trapdoor is to look at, however, I'm sure we've all been let down by licensed games that have looked the biz but have ultimately failed to deliver on their promises. Good looks are nothing without solid game play to back them up...and game play is the area where The Trapdoor REALLY starts to get interesting.

I can pretty much guarantee you've never played anything quite like The Trapdoor. Sure, there are large dollops of Dizzy and Manic Miner its DNA, and of course there are modern games like Cooking Mama that cover the cookery theme, but The Trapdoor successfully filters both of these concepts through the source material in order to come up with a madcap puzzle-adventure-chef simulation. And one that features a living flame-thrower on wheels, no less.

When it comes down to it, there are effectively two skills being tested in The Trapdoor:

  • Traditional flip-screen style puzzle solving:  You're going to have to Combine the right ingredient with the right trapdoor monster to get the job done
  • Organisation: How can you finish each task quickly enough to get a good score, while simultaneously leaving yourself in a good position to cook the next course?

It's the second of these which really elevates The Trapdoor among the greats. The Spectrum may have been awash with many great (and not so great) flip-screen adventures, but none place as many real-time demands on the player as Trapdoor.

You see, the aesthetic details weren't just for show - they seem like an integral part of genius programmer Don Priestley's scheme to create a tiny but highly-detailed world. As universes go, The Trapdoor's castle is small - it covers just 6 screens in total. The upside, however, is that once set in motion, everything happens in real time.

Open the Trapdoor for a second, say, and a small flurry of worms will spew off in all directions. These worms will quickly attract Berk's pet spider (Drut) who in turn will hunt-down and eat each and every one of the slimy invertebrates. Even if both Drut and the worm vanish off the current screen.

This has a massive effect on gameplay: heated items will cool rapidly if left off the heat, so must be dealt with quickly (no one likes cold 'Slimies.') Meanwhile, Trapdoor dwellers have a bit of a habit of wandering off if you leave the screen to fetch a certain ingredient or cooking utensil.

Consequently, planning and strategy are pushed center stage: Life if so much easier if ingredients are prepped and equipment moved in advance. Unlike other adventure games of its type, its not enough to know the solution to the puzzles - you have to understand the correct order to execute everything to be successful too. this makes for both an important life lesson and a game which feels so much more frantic and thrilling than its contemporaries.

While you think you'd be able to cheat it by playing through once or twice to make a note of the order you have to do everything in, The game has a final sting in the tale: After the initial 'Can o' Worms,' all of the other dishes are served up in an entirely random order, so adaption and more general strategic planning are the order of the day here. Oh Globbits -  heaven help you if the first thing you need from the Trapdoor is the Terminatoresque Thing on Wheels...

The Trapdoor, then, is a really interesting game - especially when you consider that the entire world is made up of about 6 screens, around 10 items and just 4 adversaries. It might be tiny, but like the needle that contains this tiny sculpture, there's much more going on than there really should be. I can't think of many other games based on real-time adaption and strategy that don't involve building cities or commanding armies.

The Trapdoor is, however, a 30 year old Spectrum game, and with that territory inevitably comes issues that may not sit well with modern gamers. Aside from a couple of words uttered from Berk's friend Boni (a skull who sits in the wall,) the game gives you only the slightest help when it comes to accomplishing your tasks, and no help whatsoever when it comes to dealing with the monsters.

On top of this, it's also possible to make some of the jobs impossible: Anything dropped down the trap door is gone forever (Including Boni. Take THAT you unhelpful git!) and some objects found in the castle can damage each other beyond repair. This isn't necessarily a problem, but the pseudo depth of field can make it a little hard to judge where things are in relation to one another, which can be a bit of a pain.

The difficulty maybe off-putting too: While the easy setting (Learner Berk) can be a bit tricky, you can only complete the game properly on "Super Berk" - and that introduces irritating ghosts into the equation who'll both harass you every step of the way and steal potentially vital ingredients. Bah humbug.

Still, in spite of its flaws, I'd say its difficult not to like The Trapdoor. Outside the realms of single-screen arcade games, You'd be hard-pressed to find a better example of ingeniously frugal game design, and like a course in a fancy restaurant, it successfully balances counteracting elements of stress, frustration, triumph and reward to create an endlessly moreish morsel of  juicy gameplay. give it a go today!

The Trapdoor is available legally from the World of Spectrum. Like Speccy Stuff? Why not download my album of AY-generated tunes!