It’s kinda funny looking at the blurb for Albert Ball’s 1984 ZX Spectrum game Rapscallion with 2015 eyes. These days were we to describe a game as “a fully animated cartoon adventure” you can pretty much guarantee that the implied emphasis would be on “cartoon” whereas in 1983, the emphasis would be firmly on the “animated” part.
Here was a videogame where things didn’t just move, they were animated too. Quick, let’s tell the world about this. It doesn’t even have to be animated well, it just has to be animated full stop. When we look back on 1984 in home computer games we remember the Jet Set Willys and the Sabre Wulfs, forgetting all too easily that it would be another 12 months give or take before that sort of ‘quality’ could be considered the norm.
And to be fair to Albert Ball, Rapscallion goes to greater lengths than a lot of games from the time so it’s not as wild as it sounds. It even has what I guess we’d now term a cutscene to open the game with. There’s real effort here to make the game live up to its claims of being a fully animated cartoon adventure and well, I guess it’s one of those quirks of fate that the future didn’t hold much of a place for it.
the great lost British take on the infamous Atari 2600 game Adventure
As with Ball’s other (and massively more well known and well remembered) Spectrum game from the time “Jumping Jack”, Rapscallion uses very little to go a long way.
Jumping Jack is little more than a series of lines with holes in them for the most part but Jack, the little stickman with a big head and big nose, becomes something much more memorable with his Benny Hill run sequence and his bruised bonce falls. Unlike Jack, however, Rapscallion is a far more quirky and expansive affair using chunky pixel graphics to produce a very British videogame. Sort of.
Sort of because Rapscallion is the great lost British take on the infamous Atari 2600 game Adventure. But weirder, natch.
Rapscallion is a game where you’ve lost your crown to some other dude who’s now locked you in the dungeon. So far, so videogame plot, right? Luckily for you, a fairy princess has granted you the ability to turn yourself into a bird to get yourself out of a pickle BUT it’s even better than that because the bird can turn into a fly at any time (because what else would a bird turn into?) and if you get killed in either form, not to worry as you turn into a ghost. Phew. That’s all very convenient.
It takes place over 40 or so Adventure-gone-weird screens where exits and entrances don’t always make too much sense. In most cases you’ll be leaving a screen via one of multiple exits around the edges but you can’t really take it for granted they’ll be the only ways out. Maybe you need to touch a door, a brick or something. Who knows, try everything to see what happens, right? And to top it all off, there doesn’t seem to be any real coherence to the map. Rooms just sort of link to other rooms with no real sense of organisation or place.
There are tasks to be done, from touching pixies to collecting keys but due to the sprawling nature of the map, one of the easiest ways to wrap your head around the place is to off yourself and use your spiritual form as an opportunity to map things on paper. Yes, it’s one of those ‘you’re going to need a piece of paper’ games, especially by the time you reach the secret passage in the castle which is a bastard screen full of entrances and exits and oh man, it can make your head hurt if you’re not keeping track of what leads to where.
The rooms themselves are each little mini challenges to work through, navigate mazes, avoid being shot by hunters, don’t get eaten by giant cats in the cat room, don’t get licked by a frog or eaten by the giant disembodied heads of diners and we don’t speak about the viaduct because that’s just weird.
I’ll throw my hands up and admit that one of the things I appreciate about Rapscallion and indeed a lot of early home computer games before fidelity got the better of us all is their willingness to make no sense whatsoever. Over the years, videogames have lost a lot of their carefree ‘fuck it, that’ll work’ attitude where it would be a revelation as to what exactly be in the next room because, well, it could be anything really. Going back to stuff like this now is such a joy, it’s so totally no fucks carefree and that’s brilliant.
I’d sooner the off kilter surrealism than meme ridden zombie fodder
It’s a thing that I’d hoped would make a comeback with the increased availability of easy game development tools but maybe it’s just a moment that’s passed, never to return.
It’s a personal preference, obviously, but I’d sooner the off kilter surrealism than meme ridden zombie fodder that a lot of videogames are wont to default to. But then, I’m also of the opinion that a lot of videogames that try and make sense of their worlds should kinda embrace the fact that they’re a bit silly more.
Saints Row III and IV realised this with quite some style yet videogames as a whole seem far more concerned with taking their stories, their lore, way more seriously than is perhaps deserved.
And yes, you can get off my lawn now.
I can also appreciate that the very things I love Rapscallion for, its silliness, its grand ‘every room is a new thing to do’, it being Adventure-gone-weird with its chunky pixel graphics at a time where Ultimate and others were starting to push high res, higher fidelity, less abstract graphics, well, these are all the same things that doom the game to a footnote or vague memory. Which y’know, is a shame because Rapscallion is pretty cool in its own silly way.
It was, I think, Albert Ball’s last game for the Spectrum. His third planned release lost to publisher indifference and a public enraptured by increasing production values, eventually crawling its way out years later onto the PC in a world before the press looked once more at the work of home or bedroom coders.
Rapscallion, though? The great British ‘Adventure’ that could. Bold, cartoony and, well, fully animated. Most of the time. But it was 1984 so you can’t have everything.