Retrospective: Merlin - Firebird (1987)
Updated: Mar 4, 2022
Hello everyone, welcome to the first of my "Retrospective" series, in which I look back on some of the games that made my childhood but that won't get official reviews here on the website (although I might make videos on my YouTube channel).
We kick off the retrospective series with Merlin, a fantasy-themed platforming game, published exclusively for the ZX Spectrum by Firebird Software in 1987. The man directly responsible for the game's creation, Mike Westlake, is an enigma, and I haven't been able to find out any information on him at all, apart from his list of videogame credits (more on that later).
First a bit of information on my history with the game. There was a now defunct local shop that used to sell Firebird Software titles for the recommended £1.99 a pop. Merlin was one of these titles. I don't remember exactly what happened, but I think I liked the look of the game (medieval fantasy stories were - and still are - my jam). I intended to buy it (or have my parents buy it for me, after all I was a kid back in the mid to late 80s). When I got to the shop, I found out to my horror that the game had already been sold, and no more copies were available. I had my heart set on Merlin being my next game and it was gone! I went home very distraught. I thought I was never going to play, let alone own, that game. Then an apparent miracle happened. The shop called and said that the original buyer had kindly retuned the game so I could come over at my earliest convenience to purchase it instead. I don't recall the intricacies of how the buyer found out about my plight or how the shop had our phone number. Needless to say, I marched right down to the shop, £2 clutched tightly in my hand. I bought the game, thanked everyone profusely and took Merlin home. The game was in regular rotation in those far gone days of the late 80s, so I think it's far to say I enjoyed it quite a bit. The question is, does Merlin stack up all these years later? Stick around to find out.
Let's start from the top, the cassette cover. Merlin looks sinisterly over his cauldron of bubbling magic spells. He's probably thinking, "Don't you dare touch my s***. It took me long enough to collect all the magic stars needed for the spell." The spell in question will restore his magical powers. How did he lose them in the first place? We don't get to find out. Some things are better left unsaid. Anyway, the aim of the game is to guide Merlin through Camelot Castle and its immediate environs, collecting said magic stars. According to the inner inlay, we're actually guiding the hapless wizard around the Kingdom of Camelot. Far as I'm aware though, Camelot is just the castle; the actual kingdom according to some sources was called Logres, which could have been in either Somerset, Glastonbury, Winchester (where a round table exists to this day in said city's Great Hall) or even Wales. But I digress. Back to Merlin.
A copy if the inner inlay
We said that Merlin looks a bit mean on the front cover. Not so in the loading screen. There he looks positively happy, waving his magic wand around, sprinkling what could be magic dust, snowflakes or dandruff. If I had to hazard a guess as to why, I'd say that Merlin has collected all the stars at this point. which is why he's looking as happy as he is. His robe and wizard's hat are decorated in moons and stars, which is a nice touch. They didn't seem to be on his clothes before, so probably Merlin has magicked them into existence. Spot as well Camelot Castle to Merlin's right, looking nice and colourful. Occupying the bottom third of the screen is the in-game HUD. It's not the best looking loading screen I've seen, but it does the job.
The loading screen
We then come to what could be seen as the title slash controls screen. The game's title, Merlin, is modestly tucked in the top centre of the screen, as opposed to the loading screen, where it's big and bold. Anyway, below the title stands Merlin, in the blue robles; they are sans stars and moons, which adds to my above theory. Merlin seems to be holding a candle in his hands and is surrounded by what could be snowflakes or stars. He's not looking too happy here, his eyelids seem to be drooping; he could be sleepwalking or simply pensive, but who knows. To either side of him is brightly coloured text highlighting the different controls, keyboard to the left and joysticks to the right. Helpfully, both Kempston and Interface 2 joysticks are automatically configured when you plug them in. Directly below Merlin is a blue banner with scrolling text that shows both legal information AND welcomes you to the Kingdom of Camelot. Below this, and once again occupying the bottom third of the screen, is the HUD, looking colourful as ever. Incidentally (and you might have guessed it already), but the HUD appears in-game as well. Pressing ENTER on the keyboard starts the adventure. And do press it quickly, as the title music can get a little annoying after a while...
The title/controls screen
So after all that, how does Merlin actually play? Before we get to that, there's a couple of things we have to address. First of all, the game looks gorgeous. It just does. The graphics are bright and colourful, they possess nice shading and detail. Granted, the background itself is completely black, but that's not a bad thing. Secondly, the sprites are absolutely huge. Especially Merlin himself. Some of the enemies and obstacles he encounters are huge too; others, such as ghosts and creepy crawlies, are smaller in size.
The first screen of the game
Unfortunately, there are downsides to the graphics, some that affect gameplay, others that don't. An example that doesn't affect gameplay is attribute clash, something that the Spectrum was notorious for. Basically, when Merlin walks in front of an object or sprite, he takes on the colour attribute of that said object or sprite. Take a look at the screenshot below for an example of what I mean. Merlin passes by a green suit of armour and he himself turns green. You'd think this would be the perfect camouflage to get past enemies, but not really.
One of the many examples of attribute clash in the game...
Something that does affect the gameplay is just the size of Merlin's sprite; it's simply huge. This makes avoiding enemies rather difficult, especially the larger sized ones like broomsticks. Compounding this issue is Merlin's limited movement: our favourite wizard simply isn't the most nimble character around. He shuffles along stiffly in his slippers at a rather sedate pace (he is rather old to be fair) and his jump is more of a little hop. I think it's fair to say that Merlin doesn't have many frames of animations, and this is something that extends to the enemy sprites as well. Merlin's sheer size and movement makes playing the game feel a little awkward and cumbersome.
Oh look, a giant fish!
We've touched a bit on the gameplay aspect, so let's delve into it properly now. Merlin (as if you didn't know it already) is a 2D side-scrolling flip screen action adventure game in which the player explores Camelot Castle and collects magical stars. There are around 30 screens in the game, and each one contains a certain amount of enemies to overcome and a certain number of stars to collect. Merlin cannot kill enemies, he can only avoid them as we've already seen. The locations are quite varied from outside the castle grounds, the throne room, bedchamber, cellar, library and so on. Like many Spectrum games, Merlin is a tough game make no mistake. The game makes it harder for you than it should as well, not only in the ways we've already touched upon but also in the ways enemies behave in this game. In and of themselves, the enemies follow simple patterns. What gets me is the way some enemies are programmed to deal damage slowly and others are programmed to just kill you outright, causing you to lose a life right away (you start off the adventure with 10 by the way, which is quite generous, almost as if the programmer was aware of the issue). I'm still not 100% sure what the reasoning behind this decision was. My guess is the programmer realised that if all enemies just dealt damage slowly, the game would be too easy. So he programmed some enemies to deal one shot instakill damage. The bad news is that the one shot kill enemies are indistinguishable to enemies that drain your health slowly (i.e. they weren't given unique sprites so you'd know to distinguish them from regular enemies, for example). The good news is it won't take long to figure out which enemies are the ones that kill instantaneously, and which don't.
Camelot's even got waterfalls... Nice!
So far it seems that I've been unduly hard on this game. And it's true that as an adult, I can more plainly see its various limitations, compared to when I was a kid. That said, however, I do find trying to get past each screen somewhat addictive; there's a modicum of fun trying to collect every star on each screen, and it's a challenge for sure. So I'll see myself pressing ENTER on the screen for another go more often that you'd think. If only they'd thought to add in-game music to liven up proceedings a little bit.
A nice stroll through the battlements...
So I'm getting to the end of this retrospective now, and the question becomes: should you play Merlin? If you're looking for a game that showcases the Spectrum's graphics capabilities, then go for it. If you're looking for a stiff challenge (pun intended, you know because the sprites move awkwardly and stiffly), give it a go. You might find yourself getting hooked on trying to collect every star on every screen. For anyone else, there are other games that would probably pique your interest. Some of those games might even appear in future retrospectives...
Fancy going down in the cellar, anyone?
I promised I'd look into Mike Westlake's other games before signing off, and I'll do so quickly here. The first game he wrote after Merlin is called Pieces of Eight, published by Sinclair User in 1992. Story wise you play as a pirate called Captain Crook who's swept into Bristol on a secret mission. Said mission? Retrieve the smuggled gold he left there on a previous visit. I say "smuggled" loosely, because as you see in the game, the pieces of gold are quite visible in plain sight. Gameplay wise, then, you have to walk from screen to screen collecting the individual pieces of gold, and it's a wonder no-one else thought to pick them up beforehand. Also, how do I know the game takes place in Bristol? There's a nod to Treasure Island in the form of the Admiral Benbow Inn, which was located in Bristol. It's a nice, little Easter egg, all told.
Captain Crook at the Admiral Benbow Inn...
The second game Mike Westlake wrote after Merlin is called S.A.S Combat Assault, published by Sinclair User in 1993. Story wise you play as an S.A.S soldier sent to Downing Street on a mission. Or maybe he just turned up there for no reason. Who knows. The mission? Clear the PM's flat of all its stray hand grenades. As to how those got into Downing Street in the first place? It's not important. Gameplay wise, you have to walk form screen to screen and retrieve each of the stray hand grenades while not using your gun. See how it's pointed? Awkward is all I have to say.
The positioning of the gun is unfortunate... Even the copper's not impressed.
In terms of gameplay and presentation, both of these subsequent games are virtually identical to Merlin, with only the graphics really changing to reflect the theme of each title. Huge, awkward sprites and stiff animations remain, and even the music and sound effects are largely the same across all three titles. If you enjoyed Merlin, these will be right up your alley as well.
There is a fourth game that Mike Westlake wrote that we haven't mentioned yet. The title? Tarantula. It was published in 1987 by a studio called Creative Sparks. Conceptually it shares similarities with the other three titles we've talked about. The idea is to collect a certain type of item while trying to avoid enemies; sound and musical cues are again similar. However, the graphics don't follow the same pattern as the author's other titles. For one, the action takes place in a labyrinthian underground cave. Secondly, the sprites are much smaller. Thirdly, the main character (an astronaut looking fellow) has a lot more freedom of movement. I haven't had much time to get to grips with it at the time of this writing, but the game certainly intrigues me, so I'll be going back to it at some point.
Tarantula... not to be confused with the 1950s monster movie of the same name...
And that about does it for this first retrospective. I hope you've enjoyed reading and that you'll join me for the next one. Please don't hesitate to get in touch if you have any suggestions, comments, or tips for improvement. Until next time, bye for now.