180 Free games: Analysis of a Cover Tape Collection

It just so happened that a few weeks ago I had to move my original Zx Spectrum collection out of storage. Faced with a huge plastic crate filled to the brim with cassettes, it suddenly struck me how ridiculous it was that we had some how managed to amass such a collection in a time frame that couldn’t have spanned more than two and a half years.

One thing that definitely helped with this was the large stack of games we didn’t buy directly. I’m not talking about dodgy TDKs copied by friends (although, admittedly there were a few of those…) I’m talking about the glorious bounty of games that were given away every month on the front of Spectrum magazines

Being the massive nerd/idiot that I am, I immediately wanted to cataloged all of these tapes and armed with the ever dependable combination of Google Sheets and the World of Spectrum, it took me over an hour to record all the games. This isn’t surprising: There may have been less than 70 tapes, but they contained 178 games between them. For someone who grew up with a relatively expensive cartridge-based system this would seem an incredible amount of titles to have access to – even before considering they all arrived for free. What, however, was on those tapes? Did they contain high quality title or shovelware rubbish put together by the people who made the magazines?

First, a bit of background on just what period our collection covered. We received our Spectrum towards the end of the system’s life, in the summer of 1989. Though this was firmly in the age of the Amiga, we weren’t alone in persisting with 8-bit microcomputers. From 1989 to 1992, it was difficult for any game to reach the dizzy height of the all-format game charts without sporting at least a Spectrum (and preferably C64 and Amstrad CPC versions) of their title. In fact, as late as April 1992 the title that topped the charts around the launch of the Super Nintendo’s was actually a collection of Dizzy games for the Zx Spectrum, C64 and Amstrad CPC.

On the Magazine front, we started regularly buying (and by ‘buying’ I mean ‘pestering to have bought for us’) magazines around the beginning of 1990. By this point the Spectrum market was being serviced by three Spectrum magazines: Sinclair User, who weren’t very good, CRASH, who seem to have been favoured by a good bulk of the Spectrum clan and the highly irreverent Your Sinclair, which was the magazine preferred in the FatNicK house. Between 1990 and mid 1992 we ended up amassing a collection of 66 over tapes: 29 from Your Sinclair 19 from Sinclair User and the rest from Crash. These magazines cost adround £1.80, which would be the equivalent of about £4.50 today. Given the time frame and the amount of tapes we owned, I can say that we successfully conned a magazine out of our parents around once every two weeks, which doesn’t seem like a massively decadent level of consumption (especially when you consider the amount of Robux your average cheeky 9 year old will try and extract from you today. Bah Humbug.)

As for the history of magazines giving away free stuff, it had been common place in the UK since at least the ’60s. British Comics like the Beano often came bundled with sweets and stickers and even (slightly) more grown up magazines like the satirical Private Eye attached audio recordings to the front of a number of their issues..

British Comic 2000ad Bundled with some cool stickers (image courtesy of downthetubes.net)

Consequently, its not too surprising to find that cover tapes as a concept date from relatively early in the life of computer magazines. The earliest example, however, wasn’t a tape at all: In February 1984 Personal Computer Games attached a vinyl recording of game data that the reader was supposed to transfer to a cassette. The titles included weren’t entirely notable – they were games submitted by readers for a regular and common feature where magazines printed homebrew code to type-in at home – but it was an interesting experiment nonetheless.

Personal Computer Games Flexidisk (February 1984) image courtesy of World of Spectrum

The first real cover tape was attached to the Christmas Issue of Personal Computer Games later that year (1984.) However there was a crucial difference between Personal Computer Games’ ‘Christmas Megagift’ and what would come after: the four titles on offer (Jasper!, Danger Mouse in the Black Forest Chateau, Backpackers Guide to the Universe and Strange Loop) were all demos rather than complete games.

The big step toward’s the cover tape’s final form occurred a year later, when the ex-editor of Personal Computer Games, Chris Anderson, managed to reverse the fortunes of his ailing CPC-focused magazine Amstrad Action’s by attaching it to another Christmas gift tape. This time, the games featured were were full titles rather than demos – albeit ones that Ocean Software had deemed unfit for commercial release.

Amstrad Action’s Christmas presents – Kung Fu and Number 1

On the Speccy side the cover tape wars didn’t begin in earnest until May 1987, when Your Sinclair acquired their own unreleased Ocean game – Road Race – as an Easter gift. By the time I bought my first magazine towards the end of 1989 things had changed again: games publishers had realised the advertising potential that gifting older titles offered them, and were now happy to exchange the rights to older titles that had come to the end of their shelf life in return for token payments from the magazines.

An original loose Your Sinclair tape without a jewel case

I didn’t know it at the time, but i started buying Spectrum magazines at a perfect moment. By now it wasn’t just Your Sinclair mounting tapes to the front of their magazine, and the whole business was growing increasingly competitive. Cover tapes went from simple plastic cassettes taped to the front to being housed in plastic jewel cases with their own custom sleeve art. The number of titles started to rapidly jump as well. Your Sinclair launched “Four Pack” tapes in late 1990 before upgrading to ‘Magnificent 7’ tapes the following year. Not to be outdone, Sinclair User debuted with ‘Six of the Best’ before upgrading its tapes to ‘Great 8’ the following year. It’s worth noting that these titles weren’t all full games mind you – they would also include demos of newer games and the occasional utility or demoscene production – but it wasn’t uncommon to end up with three or four full games on one tape.

So then, that’s the potted history out of the way, we have just a single and highly important question remaining: what was actually on those tapes?

One of the most interesting statistics about my cover tape collection was that only 19% of the games were released before 1986. This year was an important watershed in the history of the Spectrum as it saw the release of the upgraded Spectrum 128 coincide with a dramatic increase of the general level of polish found in major Spectrum releases. On the whole, games released before 1986 were generally more experimental than those released after, but they were also more likely to simply be terrible games from both an execution and conceptual point of view.

Thankfully, however, the titles given away on the front of magazines between 1990 and 1992 were actually a pretty good introduction to the early era. Though there were some slightly questionable titles that still made the cut (like Hewson’s Di-lithium lift) there were some really interesting and original games that were worth playing. My personal favourites were Vortex software’s isometric helicopter sim Cyclone – an interesting rescue simulator with more than a passing similarity to Desert Strike, Durrel’s imaginative under water adventure Scuba Dive and Hewson’s steam train simulator Southern Belle. Oh, and of course the real standout: Julian Gollop’s Chaos, a turn based magical duel that saw multiple wizards engage in combat by summoning a cast of magical creatures and a generation of kids complain about their chance of summoning a golden dragon. It might not look much, but a clever illusion mechanism and a misleadingly deep mechanics mean it remains one of the greatest multiplayer games of all time.

Cylcone, Chaos, Scuba Dive and Southern Belle – all incredible ambitious titles for the era.

So that covers the old games, but what about more famous titles? Was there anything in there that an the international audience might recognise? Dizzy is an obvious choice – thanks mostly to his brief career on the Nes – but there are actually much better candidates. Aside from an interesting first-person adventure based on the film Aliens, our cover tape collection contained a number of arcade ports including Fire Bird’s port of Flying Shark, US Gold’s versions of Solomon’s Key, Rygar and Crystal Castles plus Activision’s take on Rampage, Wonder Boy and Ninja Spirit. On the whole these were enjoyable ports – as a group they averaged 7/10 when they were reviewed in Spectrum magazines, and the lowest average score was 6. At the time I remember being particularly impressed with Rampage which, despite being rock-hard, managed to include many elements that other ports neglected (such as AI-powered ally monsters.)

Wonderboy and Rampage received mixed reviews but it was great having playable (and free) ports all the same

The ports reviewed well, but how about the quality of the other titles? Of the games that were formally reviewed in magazines, 72% received a score between 7-10 from Your Sinclair, 74% received a 7-10 from Sinclair user (with 22% receiving a perfect 10) and finally a surprisingly consistent 70% received a score of 7-10 from Crash. (with 3 receiving perfect 10s.) Not a shabby performance i’d say – especially since titles like Gargoyle Games seminal adventure Tir Na Nog were considered some of the best games on the system.

Bounder, Tir Na Nog, Spindizzy and Trantor all received straight 9s and 10s from the magazines

The games reviewed well, but how different were they? In terms of genre the spread was much wider than I actually anticipated. From memory, I remembered a lot of these tapes being stuffed with cheap’n’cheerful text adventures, but this was wrong: in reality just 7% of the games on the tapes were interactive fiction titles. Perhaps a little predictably given the era, arcade shooters and adventure titles made up 28% of the titles between them, with maze, action and puzzle games all pulling in about 10% a piece – with the remaining 35% divided between a diverse range of titles including strategy games, sports and board games and simulators. Not a bad mix at all especially considering a number of titles (like political thriller Hijack) were individual titles unlike any other.

Isometric action game Highway Encounter, Strategy game Rebel Star, slot machine simulator Top Fruit Machine and board game Flash Point all help to show the variety of genres found on magazine covertapes

Though publishers had become keen to have their games featured on magazine cover tapes, another interesting statistic is the amount of cover games that were exclusive to the Magazine they were included on – a whopping 24%. These games were exclusive for a number of different reasons. Some were titles commercial publishers deemed unfit for release. Others were games that had been published commercially in Spain or France. Others still were created especially for the magazines – like ‘YS Capers’, an Operation Wolf-style light gun game that featured the staff caricatures found in Your Sinclair as the baddies. Though some of these titles were the work of amateur coders, this wasn’t always the case. YS Capers author Damian Scattergood – for example – coded the Spectrum versions of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker and Irem’s Vigilante.

Deja Vu, Hyper lane, YS Capers and A Nightmare on Robinson Street could only be found on magazine cover tapes

Another genre of exclusive cover game were bonus entries for existing series. Dizzy 3.5 and Seymour Take One were short, self-contained episodes that set the scene for Magicland Dizzy and Seymour Goes to Hollywood in turn. More than simple demos, these free games were about the size as a short downloadable episode would be today, and acted as the perfect teaser for the upcoming title. I think we ended up buying 100% of the full games these titles were advertising so it was a form of marketing that definitely worked on us.

Dizzy 3.5 and Seymour: Take One

As we are talking about tapes from a number of different magazines, A final question is how the quality of the games featured on each magazine compared. Though our collection favoured Your Sinclair, a comparison across each of the magazines returns surprisingly equal results: the average release year was 1986 for games contained on Sinclair User tapes and 1987 for Crash and Your Sinclair – just the year out. Though Sinclair User led the pack in terms of quality – the average score of games reviewed by all three of the magazines was 7.6 – the average score for both Crash and Your Sinclair games was only 0.1 of a percentage point behind.

Crash vs Your Sinclair

The biggest difference between the three magazines seems to have been the genres they favoured: Your Sinclair tapes generally featured more action and adventure titles, Sinclair User tapes often came with shooters while Crash packed in a lot of text adventures – a factor which probably explains why we were attracted more by the tapes supplied with Your Sinclair and Sinclair User.

So there we have it a short summary of a (far from complete) collection of magazine cover tapes. While not exactly an all-encompassing look at the period, I hope the statistics we’ve looked at provide a taste at what it was like to be a Spectrum owner towards the end of the machine’s life. Even as someone who was there at the time, I’m still amazed by the breadth and depth of the titles that were given away, and how they broadened my horizons as a Spectrum owner. At a price of a couple of quid a week it was like a prototype and quintessentially British version of gamepass – albeit with arguably a larger and more diverse range of titles. In an age where the public are grumbling about the increased prices of next generation of video games, it seems incredible how rapidly we went from an era where quality titles were given away on the front of magazines to one where new titles were priced at £39.99.

For anyone who would like to take a peek at the raw data, you can check it out here:

One Reply to “180 Free games: Analysis of a Cover Tape Collection”

Comments are closed.