The Surprisingly Modern Cult of Horace

All good things come to an end. In my case this turned out to be the relatively cushy storage solution i had for all of my old Spectrum gear. Still, silver linings and all that: One of the big advantages of having to get your Spectrum stuff out of storage is having the opportunity to sniff the cardboard (ahem) and give it all a once over.

In theory buying a new Spectrum in 1989 – when the advanced Amiga and Atari ST were already on the market with their fancy 16-bit games – was a colossal error. In practice however, i think it was a stroke of genius. Though my Speccy was only in active use until around 1992, I still ended up filling two huge plastic crates with tapes – and most of those would have been tightly packed miniature jewel cases to boot. Though the Spectrum would still receive premium £9.99 releases for the next couple of years (including a great port of the NES Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles and an impressive but sluggish port of Final Fight), by this point the vast bulk of its library was available for next to nothing – either as official budget releases, hastily discounted premium titles, magazine-mounted cover tapes or – very rarely – as titles copied illicitly from friends.

Not only did I end up with a huge library, then, but it was one that represented the entire span of the machine. Yes, I spent plenty of time playing Turtles, Target Renegade and the port of WWF Wrestle Mania, but I also spent some time playing more aged titles like Cyclone and Scuba Dive (cover tapes), Back 2 Skool ( naughty copy) and Ghostbusters (budget release under the “Ricochet” label.) In fact, in the pantheon of great Spectrum games, I think there was only really one key omission. It just so happens that, unfortunately, many consider him to be the mascot of the entire system.

Enter Horace

If you read anything about the Zx Spectrum today, it seems impossible to avoid the influence of Horace. Originating from the early months of the Spectrum’s life, Horace was the brainchild of Beam software founder Alfred Milgrom and programmer William Tang. From a rough design etched into graph paper he was to go on to be the star of a hugely successful trilogy of arcade-inspired games that were to be published by Spectrum creators Sinclair Research themselves and eventually bundled in with computer. A vaguely person-shaped blob with eye holes, legs and a pony tail, Horace’s bizarre appearance hasn’t stopped him from winning an army of fans, who are in no doubt that he was the unofficial mascot of the system.

To me this has always seems a touch strange. Due to the vagaries of distribution in the age of the micro computer, it wasn’t massively uncommon for me to simply not be able to find a game (the incredibly well-received Myth remained a consistent bone of contention.) Nonetheless, despite reading a lot of games magazines at the time, I don’t recall having any real awareness of Horace. I think i probably would have known the name Horace Goes Skiing, but i’m not 100% sure i would have been able to identify the character in a lineup at the time. This has always struck me as a little odd, given how he was supposed to be an all-but-official mascot. Was the error one of my perception? I thought i’d investigate the reception at the time and try to find out.

Horace Gets Hungry

Horace made his first appearance in 1982, the Spectrum’s very first year on the market. At that time, the whole software retail environment was in its infancy and commercial software (where it existed) came from people who were effectively creating programming techniques as they went along. At the time there were two Spectrum variants on the market: the 48k model (that became the defacto standard until around 1987,) and a restrictive 16k model that gave programmers little room to wriggle. No wonder, then, that many of the games that became commercially available in these early months ended up either as direct clones of Pacman or were games with a title that contained ‘Space’ followed by a noun that generally wasn’t too dissimilar to ‘invaders’. It was, presumably, much easier to learn the ropes if you had a sound template to work from.

This highly derivative market was the one into which Horace was born. Though like so many of its contemporaries his first outing was a maze game in the style of pacman, it seems a little bit pointless to criticise this given the general character of the era. Plus, to be fair to Hungry Horace, it also had a couple of tricks up its sleeve as well. Firstly, the graphic design of Horace and the park keepers ( along with the back story which sees Horace trying to gobble some unsuspecting park keepers’ prize daisies) were relatively novel and allowed Horace to stand out from the crowd visually. The second thing was a nice design quirk: where other maze gamed forced the player to clear each screen of collectibles in the style of the original Pacman, Hungry Horace allowed the player to escape forwards to the next screen in order to come back and try and finish off any remaining daisies later. Not bad for a title designed to run on machines whose RAM could barely hold an empty Word docx file.

We can see that, at the time, Horace was pretty well received. In C&VG’s 1983 book of reviews, Hungry Horace was rated as their joint favourite maze game, alongside the long-forgotten Spectrum Spectres. Though there’s no hint of them considering Horace to be a mascot of the Spectrum itself, they at least thought of him as a cute character. While Practical Computing considered Horace as “downright silly” in their March 1983 review, they noted that the game itself was fun to play even if they (along with C&VG) disliked the controls.

Practical Computing review of Hungry Horace
Practical Computing, March 1983
C&VG Review of Hungry Horace
C&VG Book of Reviews, 1983

Perhaps the most glowing of the early reviews, however, could be found in a reader review of Zx Computing and a feature on Spectrum Pacman clones found in Sinclair User. In Zx Computing, Hungry Horace was praised for its cutting edge graphics and pegged as a future classic, while in Sinclair User Horace is described as ‘almost a legend’. There may not be any hints of him being considered a mascot, but Horace was clearly a character that captures the imagination. Indeed, according to Sinclair User, he’d been topping the software charts for months (not that they actually printed any software charts, mind you.)

Zx Computing review of Hungry Horace
Zx Computing 7
Sinclair User review of Hungry Horace
Sinclair User, April 1983

As popular as Hungry Horace was, it wasn’t the game that gave the blob man his lasting reputation. For that we have to look to the sequel.

To The Slopes

Ask those who were around in 1983 what they remember about the Spectrum and there’s a good chance Horace’s 1982 sequel will probably feature in their reply. Though it appeared within months of the original and was still targeted at owners of the 16k spectrum, Horace Goes Skiing was a much more ambitious game.

Split into two gameplay sections, the first part was unashamedly based on the arcade game frogger. With Horace standing at the top of the screen with a pocket full of (Aussie?) dollars, his task is to cross a busy motorway in order to purchase some skis from the shop at the bottom of the screen. If he succeeds, he then has to carry his skis back across the road in order to make it to the slopes.

Predictably, the second screen finds Horace and his skis ready to tackle a basic downhill course. Incredibly arcadey in nature, the player doesn’t have to worry about complex considerations like speed control and balance. Instead they simply have to slalom left and right, fitting between flag gates and avoiding impacts with the scenery. If the player makes it to the bottom without breaking their skiis, they end up spawning at the ski shop ready to make their way across the road to do it all again.

Despite being released so close to Hungry Horace, Horace Goes Skiing probably seemed like a breath of fresh air. Not only was Frogger not as heavily riffed as Space Invaders and Pacman, but the A/B gameplay model seems like it should have felt sufficiently novel. But was that really the case?

Immediately, we can see that this is where Horace is first thought about as some sort of Speccy mascot. Writing in a review of Speccy software published in June 1983, Zx Computing wrote “it looks rather like Uncle Clive is taking Horace as something sort of semi-mascot, as this is the second in a series of programs in which he has starred”. It’s notable, however, that these are just idle musings based on the fact that Sinclair had published two Horace games in a few months. It doesn’t seem to be based on any sort of suggestion from Sinclair that Horace was officially considered a mascot.

Zx Computing Review of Horace Goes Skiing
Zx Computing June 1983

As for the game itself, it was generally well recieved. Zx Computing noted that though skiing and Frogger had both been done before seperately, it was novel having both together in one program, and that putting the two games in conjunction “produces one of the most addictive packages I have yet encountered”. They also praised the high-quality of the graphics and concluded that Horace Goes Skiing “definitely helps set the new higher standard for Sinclair distributed software.” C&VG, meanwhile, were impressed with the value on offer: “splendid graphics, an addictive game and a lovable character in the shape of Horace all for £5”. Finally Personal Computer News noted that, though neither Hungry Horace nor Horace Goes Skiing were original, both were a lot of fun to play and that Horace himself as a creation was “the electronic equivalent of the Mr Men books”. He may not have been considered an official Spectrum mascot, but it’s clear that his personality was central to the appeal of Horace’s games. In 1982-3, at least.

C&VG Review of Horace Goes Skiing
PErsonal Computer News Horace Reviews
Personal Computer News March 1983

Spiders. Spiders Everywhere.

Horace’s awkward third – and final – original Spectrum game came in the form of 1983’s Horace and the Spiders. Following on from Horace Goes Skiing, Spiders was a game that tried to compile three types of arcade experiences into one package. If Skiing had started a trend of riffing off increasingly obscure arcade titles, Spiders continued it: Though the first two platforming screens are vaguely reminiscent of Pitfall, the main attraction is the third and final screen. Here, Horace has to stomp poisonous spiders through holes he’s made in their own webs – gameplay that is clearly a homage to 1980 arcade title Space Panic.

Looking back today, it’s certainly an interesting one. Considering that Tang was still targeting the 16k Speccy, packing in three different variation of gameplay was an impressive feat. However, the gameplay arguably suffered as a result. Though the Space Panic screen holds up well, the first is a poor-man’s Pitfall while the second web bridge screen feels like filler. A more extensive Space Panic clone that expanded on the original concept in a similar way to Hungry Horace would, arguably, have been a better bet.

My opinion, however, isn’t as important as people at the time. Once again, we see that Horace was well recieved by the reviewers at Zx Computing, who noted that the idea was fun and novel, and that the gameplay was addictive. Horace didn’t have a clean sweep this time, mind you: the spiders in the final stage were noted as being a little too clever when it came to hole avoidance, while Zx Computing felt the other levels could do with extending. Other outlets had no such reservations, mind you: Home Computing Weekly praised the excellent graphics and careful use of colour, while giving the game 100% for playability (though admittedly , they don’t seem to have been an outlet that was shy about handing out 100% marks!) If Spiders wasnt quite as well recieved as skiing, it definitely wasn’t that far off. We should also note that even with three titles in the can, none of the language used in the media coverage suggests that Horace was considered a mascot of the system.

Zx COmputing Review of Horace and the Spiders
Zx Computing, October 1983
Home Computing Weekly review of Horace and the Spiders
Home Computing Weekly, June 1983

To the Rescue

Horace was supposed to have at least one more adventure. Due to be released in 1984, it was intriguingly entitled Horace to the Rescue and was to be a whimsical take on the princess-saving genre, Unfortunately it never made it to production: Tang fell seriously ill while creating the game and the project was never finished – a fact that arguably tells us a great deal about how quickly the software market was moving.

Horace to the Rescue preview in Spectrum Programs
Spectrum Programs 33

You see, originally, Horace was a multi-platform hero. Though developed for the Spectrum, Hungry Horace and Horace goes Skiing were both ported to the Commodore 64 and Dragon 32. Though Horace and the Spiders was exclusive to the Sinclair machine, this had nothing to do with some sort of modern-style exclusivity deal: there simply wasn’t the same level of demand for Horace on the Dragon and Commodore machines that there was on the Spectrum.

When Spiders also failed to meet sales expectations, it didn’t make commercial sense to devote even more resources to another Horace project. in an interview in Retrogamer 161, Andrew Milgrom confirmed that, despite Tang being too ill to work, it could have been possible for someone else to finish the job if it had been thought worthwhile: 

“the Horace series was no longer so important so we didn’t feel the need to get another programmer on the project.”

Retrogamer 161, p35

In an amusing twist, Horace did manage to come to the rescue in the real world, however. Both Horace Goes Skiing and Horace and the Spiders appeared on charity compilations (a bandaid-inspired Softaid compilation and a collection for War on Want, respectively.) Unfortunately these would mark Horace’s last formal appearance on the Speccy, save for post-millennium homebrew and a weird cameo as an obstacle in a licensed Inspector Gadget title from 1987.

As The Spectrum wouldn’t relinquish the firm grip it had of the software charts until well into 1992, we can say that – rather akwardly – of its glorious ten year reign, eight of the were effectively Horace free.

War On Want Collection sleeve
War on Want Games collection Sleeve

Horace and The Wilderness

If so much of the Spectrum’s life was Horace free, how much cultural currency did he retain at the time?. From looking at the Crash archives, we can see that he definitely retained some worth into at least 1984. On the letters page In issue two of Crash (March ’84), Horace is given as an obvious and readily-comprehensible example in a discussion of the differences between fantasy and realistic physics; while in a review in issue four (May ’84) he is listed as an archetypal cartoon-like hero. Crucially, his games remained relevant too: They may have been over a year old, but in issue three’s round up of maze games Hungry Horace was crowned as the definitive Spectrum Pacman clone.

In Crash, cracks start to appear in 1985. Where as a year before the basic Hungry Horace could be considered as being among the best titles on the system, a May 1985 (issue 16) round up of sports games rather brutally summarised Horace Goes Skiing as ‘dated but playable…although never addictive’.

Crash 16 Sports special
Crash 16

From 1985 Horace vanished from all but the cheats section of the magazine. Though the War on Want collection arrived in 1986, reviewers seem to have been loath to single out any of the games for special praise or criticism, telling us little about what they thought of Horace. It was all for charity, I suppose.

When he eventually resurfaced in Crash in 1987-8, he had taken on a new meaning. By this point, spectrum game design was unrecognisable from the simplistic games being developed in 1982-3. Horace was no longer the archetypal cartoon character. Instead, was now the emblem of a bygone and much more basic era: “way way back when Hungry Horace was a national hero,” as explained in issue 51 (May ’88). Indeed, in a letter in the following issue a reader explains that 16-bit computers were currently in their ‘Horace Goes Skiing’ phase, implying that though their current games libraries was playable, their full technical capabilities were yet to be unlocked.

Crash 52 Letters
Crash 52, May 1988

Looking across to one of Crash’s competitors – Your Sinclair – we can see how quickly Horace faded from the collective speccy consciousness. Arising from the ashes of the drier Your Spectrum in January 1986, Your Sinclair was a more light hearted magazine that existed solely int he post-Horace era. Usefully, they printed letters pages that covered multiple spreads per issues and – despite the presence of a number of gags and in jokes – give a resonable insight into what was going on in the minds of Spectrum owners.

Unfortunately for Horace, between 1986 and 1990, he was mentioned just twice, with both incidents occuring in the middle of 1986. In May, a troll (possible Your Sinclair themselves, given the tone of the magazine) wrote that the Commodore 64 was the superior machine because it was home to exciting titles like Way of the Exploding Fist, while the Spectrum could only boast about the likes of Horace Goes Skiing. In July, another correspondent wrote in to defend the Spectrum’s honour, but instead of hilighting the greatness of Horace Goes Skiing, he simply exaulted the greatness of a long list of more modern Spectrum titles. After that brief exchange towards the beginning of the magazine’s life, Horace wasn’t heard from on the letters page again.

Young Sinclair May 1986 Letters Page
Your Sinclair Letters Page, May 1986

Life after Spec

As games consoles began to make their presence felt in the early nineties, magazines serving the various 8-bit microcomputers began to call time. Before finishing their runs, both Your Sinclair and Crash gave their takes on the top 100 games available for the Speccy, with Your Sinclair also running a reader chart as well. Surely this was a chance for Horace to make his presence felt.

When we look at the Your Sinclair list, number one might give us hope for the cartoony blob man: with 1983’s Death Chase taking the number one slot we can see that older 16k Spectrum games were being considered for the list – even if the placement of Death Chase at number 1 was unquestionably something of an impish move.

Unfortunately, though fellow Sinclair-published titles Stop the Express and Eric and the Floaters (literally the original Bomberman) made the list, none of Horace’s games appeared. Though he just about made it onto the reader’s selection with Horace Goes Skiing at number 83, it’s unclear how many people bothered to voted and we can say that at least one person voted for Horace Goes Skiing as a joke.

Things don’t get much better when we turn to the Crash top 100. Once again, we find that, although it was possible for older titles like Jet Pac and Boulder Dash to make the list, Horace simply didn’t. His games may have been impressive in the early days of the Speccy, but by the end of the computer’s long run he’d been left behind in terms of both character design and gameplay mechanics, for both journalists and punters alike.

Horace Goes Web Surfing

With the importance of computer-based communications growing throughout the 90s, services like Usenet provide us with a tremendous resource for tracing the first threads of Spectrum nostalgia. How did the nostalgic experts of the comp.sys.sinclair board consider Horace in the immediate post-spectrum era?

It can definitely be said that – between 1994 and 2002 – Horace’s name was one that came up on a reasonably regular basis. Whether its asking for the value of original tapes or reminiscing about the Christmas day they received their Speccy, this grass-roots nostalgia potentially explains how the Spectrum went on to become so inextricably entwined with Horace Goes Skiing.

Comp.Sys.Sinclair Recollections
Comp.Sys.Sinclair – Recollections of Christmas 1982

Except it doesn’t. Back in 1995, user Mark Harding helpfully ran a frequently-updated chart of the group’s favourite Spectrum games and encouraged his fellow users to vote. Interestingly, Their charts effectively corroborate the magazine top 100s. Indeed, never mind the top 100, Horace couldn’t even scrape into the top 200 of their list – in the fortieth iteration of their chart his titles placed at 221, 231 and 236 respectively. On top of that, the discussions of Horace’s games wasn’t always positive. Horace and The Spiders, for example, was cited as having poor introductory levels and just generally being a bit of a mess.

Comp.Sys.Sinclair Games Chart
Comp.Sys.Sinclair – Top Spectrum Games

Perhaps more that that, however, was the fact that, out of all the Spectrums characters and games, Horace, just doesn’t seem to have really stood out. A cursory search may uncover pages and pages of discussions mentioning Horace Goes Skiing, but a similar search will do the same for the likes of the excellent isometric adventure Head over Heels.

Horace and The Cultists

Overall then, i think we can trace a rough outline of Horace’s reputation: In the beginning Horace represented a showcase of design inginuity and technical skill. In a sea of crude arcade facimilies, he suggested that the Speccy was technically capable of more than the outlut Spectrum developers we’re currently offering. By 1985, contemporary games were developing at a rate of knots, and the Horace titles were suitably downgraded from cutting edge to “dated but playable” – perfect for addition to any cheap charity bundle.

From 1986 onwards he increasingly became the butt of a joke: the fact that his basic 16k games had once been so highly rated was a real testament to how far Zx Spectrum games design had progressed. Hungry Horace was shorthand for a by-gone simpler and much more basic era of game design.

Consequently, I think it’s fair to say that Horace was never really the sole mascot of the Spectrum – at least not for any real length of time or in any major capacity. This is partly because the concept of the system mascot is a product of a later period. Though the Spectrum survived into the ’90s, its contemporaries at launch were the Atari VCS and Intellivision rather than the NES and Sega Master System, and it is to the latter group that the era of the easily-identifiable mascots most firmly belongs.

Indeed, we should remember that in Horace’s era the Spectrum wasn’t really a games machine at all: it was a computer aimed squarely at the business and educational markets. With that in mind, I think it’s safe to say that when Zx Computing were mulling over whether Horace was a sort of “semi-mascot” they weren’t speculating about Horace’s potential inclusion on lunch boxes or his chances of appearing in a cartoon.

Bar the single piece of speculation in Zx Computing, there doesn’t really seem to be a contemporary or even near- contemporary concept of Horace as any sort of Spectrun mascot. It wasn’t discussed in magazines and there weren’t angry letters and petitions from the mid eighties demanding Horace make a return. Indeed, even with Speccy Nostalgia beginning to appear around the mid to late ’90s, there seems to have been no temptation to recast Horace as the authorative Spectrum mascot – and that’s despite Horace marking the beginning of the Speccy journey for almost all of the machine’s original owners. This shouldn’t surprise us either. After all, let us not forget that it was lack of interest that ultimately put an end to the Horace series.

So where does the modern impression of Horace as the Speccy’s most meaningful mascot come from? Interestingly, between 2001 and 2011 there was relatively little mention of Horace on the world wide web. A now defunct tribute to Ultimate title Trans AM, for example, lists Hungry Horace as a notable 16k game, but doesn’t give any hint that Horace should be considered differently from any other 16k title. Whastsmore,  When produced a list of top ten Speccy games back in 2011, Horace was noticeably absent in all of his different guises – and this was despite other early Speccy games like Chuckie Egg and 3d Ant Attack making the cut.

That’s not to say he wasn’t mentioned as a Mascot at all in this period mind you. Blog VGJunk introduced him as “a miserablist mascot to rival Morrisey” for example, while a tongue-in-cheek thread over at World of Spectrum feigned fury at Horace’s Commodore-based appearances. However, even then there is nothing to suggest that he should be considered more important than any of the other characters – like Miner Willy, Wally Week or Dizzy – who could make an equal claim to the mascot throne based on the roles they each played at different times in the micro computer’s life.

The relatively reserved tones of the pre-2012 era stand in stark contrast to the language used in articles that have followed the Spectrum’s 30th anniversary. In Eurogamer back in 2017, for example, Horace was described as the closest the Spectrum got to a bona fide mascot in the vein of Mario or Sonic The Hedgehog. Meanwhile, in 2018 Insert Disk described him as as an all-star hero and somewhat of a mascot for the ZX Spectrum line of microcomputers and over at Gamehammer Zoe Kirk-Robinson asserted that he was basically the Spectrum mascot through general consensus.

Quite what changed I’m not sure. It could well be that people who grew up in a later gaming period have misinterpreted the situation, conflating their own experiences with gaming mascots with the commonness of Horace as a critical early Spectrum memory of an older generation. Either way, what we can say is it seems that Horace has been firmly remoulded as a mascot in the style of Sonic or Mario, and this remoulding seems to have intensified post 2017.

Whatever the cause, this a-historic remoulding should be rejected on a few counts. Firstly, Horace predates the concept of a system mascot as we know it. Whether Spectrum owning children would have been interested in watching a Horace cartoon is purely academic: it didn’t exist to be watched. The fact that the most popular Spectrum characters of this era failed to become cultural icons in the same manner as their successors should be remembered and treated as a reminder of the relatively humble position gaming held in popular culture at this time.

Secondly – as we’ve seen – such a remoulding just doesn’t fit the contemporary perception. We should note that by the time all three of the leading Spectrum magazines had begun publishing in their most famous and influential forms, the final Horace game was already published and availableon the shelves of Whsmith. If you remember growing up reading Crash, Your Sinclair, or all but the earliest issued of Sinclair Users, then you grew up in an era where Horace had already been forsaken by his creators and was gradually fading from popular memory.

Indeed. While in the later years of the Spectrum’s Life magazine cover tapes proved to be a great path for older titles to recieve a new lease of life, for one reason or another Horace was never among them. By the time I began my own Speccy journey, he wasn’t a mascot for the system in any way shape or form. He was at best a totem of an older, more dated age or, as in my case, nothing at all.

Thirdly – and building on our previous point – casting Horace as some sort of perpetual icon does a huge disservice to the rapid pace at which the overall quality of Spectrum game programming developed. I don’t think the cancelling of Horace to the Rescue should be seen in any way as a mistake or tactical blunder: a cursory look at the gaming landscape of 1984 and 1985 reveals that even relatively poor examples – like 1985’s Street Hawke – were finished to an standard that was in a different league of professionalism to the simpler 16k games from 1982. The longevity of the Spectrum life and the changing nature of its library over that lifespan is, I think, something we should expand upon and celebrate, not compress and obfuscate.

Horace the Hero

Now, I wouldn’t want any of this to be read as an undue criticism of the Horace games themselves. We should always bear in mind that the Horace games were all viewed as quality products in the years they were produced. On top of that, as popular and best-selling early Spectrum titles, Hungry Horace and Horace Goes Skiing undoubtedly played an important part in launching and maintaining the Zx Spectrum as a platform and contributing to its early success. These are the grounds, I think, he should be celebrated on and not as the persistent system mascot that he was never cut out to be.