In the mid 80’s, computer games were just starting to experiment with simulating real life locations, events and – in particular – modes of transport. With the diluge of 8-bit racing games, though, came something a little bit different in the shape of Roller Coaster, released by Elite for the ZX Spectrum in 1985 for the princely sum of seven pounds. What made Roller Coaster stand out at the time (and indeed, still endures itself to this day) was the ambitious attempt to not only simulate the eponymous fairground ride, but an entire amusement park, albeit a deadly, life threateningly dangerous one.
The player (as owner Colonel G Bogey) is charged with collecting the money dotted around the park, and although the gates are shut to customers the rides are still very much operational. Even from the off, with the player placed right next to the game’s first major ride, the chance of death is high and although you’re equipped with a decent amount of lives (ten), they’ll soon go quick if you don’t know what you’re doing. Cue lots of attempted false starts and a sense of confusion as you run, jump and fall your away around the first few screens, accompanied by a life lost sound that you’ll never forget.
The joy here is that the rides are all representative of real world attractions. Seemingly based on Blackpool Pleasure Beach (at the time, at least) the variety of rides you’ll need to traverse includes the Log Flume (complete with giant holding up the tracks), a Ghost Train, Flying Carpet and various carousels. All of which are fast and normally filled with spikes, electricity and vertical drops, some of which are instantaneously deadly and others simply reduce your health (illustrated by way of a gravestone that draws as you suffer) but all are masterable given enough time.
Essentially a flick-screen affair, each new area is drawn with the sort of pixelated perfection that the Spectrum was so good at in the right hands, and there are 60 interconnected screens in total (see the map in the gallery below). The rides and environments are colourful, the water nicely animated and the tropical palm trees and caged animals suggest a far away island location that really set the game apart for a British developer and ignited the imagination of me and my mates; it was a marked and deliberate change from the likes of the homely Jet Set Willy and otherworldly Dynamite Dan.
It’s baffling to think that there hasn’t been a similar game since – amusement parks offer huge amounts of potential for platforming action and although I’m always of the opinion that some things shouldn’t be diluted and reworked, I’d love to see a modern take on the game. I did try to recreate some of the original on Little Big Planet (along with Manic Miner) but my Pop-it skills weren’t anywhere near up to the job – visions of Sackboy jumping through the River Caves would be a delight.
A personal, lifelong obsession with two dimensional platformers means that I regularly go back to Roller Coaster, it’s graphic design alluring and precise, the difficulty curve high but not insurmountable. It’s a tough game, but one that rewards with an open, non-linear set of goals and the promise of bigger, more exciting rides just around the corner. I’ve never actually completed the game, not 100%, but that hasn’t stopped me revisiting the abandoned amusement park whenever I get the chance. Roller Coaster then, the first of our Retro Classics and deservedly up there with the best.