Arnhem / Psytron – 80s gaming magic that still packed a punch

By Paul Sculpher


For many of today’s gamers, the 80s might seem a lifetime ago. However the central themes facing many junior gamers in that era were the same as those facing their modern counterparts. We spent far too much time playing video games and felt actual social anxiety when not gaming, not to mention an inability to get members of the opposite sex to recognise one’s existence.

What we had available to play would be considered laughable by today’s standards. With a mighty 48K of memory to work with, only a tiny percentage of what your printer might be packing today, and concepts such as the mouse utterly unheard of, it was a totally different experience. There was no internet of course, so the closest you’d get to multiplayer would be the odd game that allowed you to share the keyboard, causing you to sit uncomfortably close to your mate.

In other ways, though, it was exactly the same. How they managed to deliver an immersive gaming experience with such limited resources was anyone’s guess, tantamount to magic. Nonetheless, deliver they did, and a couple of games stand out in my memory at very different ends of the scale; wargame Arnhem and action / strategy game Psytron.

“How they managed to deliver an immersive game experience with such limited resources was anyone’s guess”

Arnhem Gameplay

I’ve always enjoyed a decent wargame and the transition from tabletop to computer games was in full flow in the mid 80s, I was in heaven. Arnhem simulated (a word used fairly loosely here) the Market Garden airborne operation of September 1944, when UK, US and Polish airborne forces seized a number of bridges to be used as a springboard into Germany. A huge armoured concentration was supposed to roll them up, one by one, before the German force could overrun the lightly armed parachute and glider troops. Though that might make it sound like a souped up version of World of Warcraft, bear in mind that you were talking about panzer divisions that were essentially un-detailed lumps of colour.

Ok, the graphics were rudimentary and the sounds effects resembled a four year old with a kazoo and a cold but the feelings the game developed were just as intense as any game you’d play today. You’d get the creeping horror of knowing your paras just weren’t going to last as the 21st Armoured Division full of (largely imagined, in terms of what you’d actually see) German tanks rolling towards the outskirts of Nijmegen. Units that started the battle in perfect shape gradually got thinned down to shells of themselves, with the XXX Corps tanks days away. It was shattering.

I guess it’s not the tech, as such, that makes a game but the way it makes you feel. I don’t remember any experience sharper than Arnhem in any game since, except perhaps a particularly well balanced game of RUSE (my all time favourite) which could provide knife-edge tension with any tiny error or change of strategy affecting everything.

That brings me to my other abiding memory, Psytron. This was a kind of action / strategy game about protecting a moon base or similar. It was fairly revolutionary, in that it had 8 or ten screens in a wraparound format, representing the view you could get from the defensive installation at the centre.

“I guess it’s not the tech, as such, that makes a game but the way it makes you feel”

You were under attack by hordes of aliens, who were dropping bombs on your base, but the hook was that the location of the bombing would affect different parts of the base. Did it hit the mess? Then you had fewer guys to do repairs. The storage facility? You’ll run out of food. The generator? You’ll not get very far without power. Every few minutes you’d get a delivery of more stuff, the mix of which you’d have to decide, with the usual desperate choices to make, more men for repairs, or more parts?

The genius of the game was freezetime . You could literally stop time to reallocate resources but you’d only have a restricted amount and, if your freezetime generator got hit, then resource allocation was another issue to deal with in realtime, whilst trying to shoot down aliens and pursue the little dogbots they dropped into your corridors.

Psytron Gameplay

It added up to a frantic combination of arcade skills, resource planning, and general stress. The main game was all about trying to survive an hour, which was ludicrously difficult – I think I made it to 25 minutes once, by the end of which I was thinking about a million things at once, was ready to shoot anything moving on sight, and had a twitch in my right eye. Not bad prep for adult life, I suppose.

Given that development timelines were in the hundreds of person-hours, rather than the millions you might see in a major game release today, and the technical restrictions were in a different universe, it’s testament to the geniuses who put the games together that the gaming experience felt the same 25 years ago as it does today. The games may have had much less depth but gaming is, more than anything else, about how you feel and I spent many happy days playing Arnhem and Psytron.

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