Back in the Day: The Video Games We Were Playing in March 1981

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Andrew Newton on the video games we played on the day …

To say that March 1981 in the UK was an average month was a bit of an understatement. The weather was miserable and wet (the second wettest March ever in England), unemployment was high and many people were exhausted after the very first London marathon. Even the opening of the very first Homebase store couldn’t cheer people up, but there was one thing that cheered the masses up and that was the release of a new computer on the market… ..

The Sinclair ZX81 – Sinclair Research Ltd

The successor to Sinclair’s ZX80, the ZX81 is designed to use as few components as possible and be as cheap as possible for an audience eager to join the computer age. This new computer borrowed many of the features from the ZX80, including the unconventional keyboard, which was just a piece of plastic over a printed circuit board, and the use of the Z80A microprocessor. The unexpanded computer came with only 1 KB of memory, but an external RAM cartridge could be bought separately to bring it up to a wonderful 16 KB. Unfortunately, some expansion cards like the one I adopted from my brother suffered from ‘memory wobble’ which caused the computer to reset when the device was pushed (I got a few blows from my older brother for accidentally and maybe sometimes intentionally doing that ).

The ZX81 was also included in the BBC’s bid for a computer they could use to hook up with their home computer program, unfortunately they chose owner Clive Sinclair for the larger and more robust BBC Micro. Sinclair wasn’t very happy, but let’s face it, can you imagine how long the little guy in the picture above would last in an elementary school with clumsy kids trying to play Granny’s Garden (a nightmarish ‘educational’ game so seemed through children’s eyes)?

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Notable games for the ZX81 were 3D Monster Maze, Mazogs, and The Gauntlet, although many great games could be typed from magazines and books at a very low cost.

For more details on this wonderful little technological wonder, check out Steve Benway’s system review here …


Defender – Williams Electronics

In March 1981 Williams released Electronics Defender in the arcades and while it was slow to gain the popularity of other arcade classics, it nonetheless became one of the highest grossing arcade games ever. It’s been so important since the golden age of arcades referenced in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Ready Player One.

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Defender is a horizontally scrolling shooter that puts players in a small spaceship on the surface of an unknown planet currently being invaded by tiny green aliens. These nasty little aliens are chasing the humans on the surface, and the only way to stop them from kidnapping our fellow astronauts is to blow them away. However, have an alien abduct a human and they turn into a fast-moving mutated creature capable of destroying the ship. It’s best not to let that happen, of course, because 1, you only have three lives and 2, if all humans are kidnapped, the planet explodes leaving nothing but evil mutants.


There have been many clones of it Defender made over the years, including Gauntlet on the Acorn Electron / BBC, Invasion of the Body Snatchas! for the Spectrum and Repton for the Apple II (not to be confused with the brilliant Repton on the Acorn computers). Remakes over the years include inclusion in the Williams Arcade’s Greatest Hits compilation cartridge released on SNES, Megadrive and PS1 in 1996 and a remake on Xbox, PS2 and Gamecube in 2002.


Game & Watch Headache AKA helmet

Headache, or to use his proper name Helmet, is a Nintendo Game & Watch with one screen (licensed from CGL in the UK) and, like most Game & Watch games, is simple yet amazingly addictive. If you’re wondering why the UK has a different name than the legend says it’s because a helmet was used at the time to describe something much vulgar by the teenage population, I’ll leave it at that.

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This Game & Watch is very simple, players take control of happy little construction workers and bring them safely to the shed on the other side of the screen. The only problem is that there is a maniac who is constantly throwing an unlimited number of tools down, to make matters worse the workers can only escape to the safety of the shed when the door is open and there is no going back into the building. the left side once you leave. Points are awarded for every guy you get to safety and for every 3 tools that hit the ground, although 3 tools hit you and game is over (maybe health and safety shuts down the site?). Actually, when I think about it, the name Headache makes a lot more sense because there are no helmets in the game at all…. in fact, it is the lack of helmets that give us the gameplay.

This isn’t the only time gamers have had a chance to play Helmet since the game has been remade for the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, DSi and the 3DS.


Laser Blast for the Atari 2600 – Activision

In 1981, long before Activision gained notoriety for upset Call of Duty fans in some way, they made Laser blast. Looking at the image you would think it was inspired by Space Invaders, but you are wrong. This title is an entertaining shooter that puts players in charge of a spaceship tasked with shooting all the little laser turrets at you. Each base fires a laser beam at the player and if hit the ship will collapse and move on to the next life, although it is possible to guide your ship to crash into a gun turret as it goes down. If you clear the turrets on the screen, players will move to the next area where the turrets move and target the player faster.

Each enemy turret is worth 90 points and players can get an extra life (up to a maximum of 6) for every 1000 points they score. Previously, players who excelled and achieved the highest possible score (999,999) could send proof to Activision to be included in the Activision Federation of Laser Blasters. I don’t know if it really got you anything, but it would definitely get you bragging in the schoolyard.

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Well that’s all for this month, I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane. While I look back on all these great games, I have only one thought: Homebase has been around for 40 years this year. You would think they have some sort of birthday sale or something, wouldn’t you? Well, see you next time!

Andrew Newton

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