The comp.sys.sinclair Crap Games Competition 2021 - 25th edition!



I am Dr. Jim Waterman, I have been on the planet for 41 years (at the time of writing), and I am best described as a highly-qualified waste of space who doesn't fit in with anyone, or anything, anywhere. But enough of the trials of life, you all want to know how I've come to be this year's CSSCGC host, don't you?

What do you mean, no? Hard luck, I'm going to tell you anyway.

On Christmas Day 1983, at the grand old age of four, a fat man with a huge, white beard brought me a Sinclair ZX81 down the chimney. Well, actually, it was my dad, who wasn't fat and didn't have a beard, and he put it in a pillowcase, but that's beside the point. Here's where my relationship with Sinclair computers began, and it's been the longest-term of all my interests. I set about writing the simplest programs ever, about the level that might be expected for someone of that age, my dad wrote some mathematical conversion programs, and my younger brother took a liking to the 16K RAM pack. Some time in 1985 he tore it off the back of the ZX81 - the computer survived, the RAM pack didn't, and a 1K ZX81 was better used as a doorstop than a computer.

But the white-bearded fat man (still actually without the beard or the excess weight) struck gold again, on Christmas Day 1987. This time, in the pillowcase was a Spectrum +2, with a nasty SJS-1 joystick, and around 100 games, most of which worked. (I now have a name for my pain: Power-Load. That, and badly-dubbed tapes.) Despite the obvious distractions of Blood n' Guts, Quetzalcoatl and Wibstars (what, you thought I'd have the latest Crash Smash titles?), I continued programming - I had sound and colour and an integrated tape deck to play with now, alongside some old issues of Sinclair User, Sinclair Programs, ZX Computing and INPUT to learn all sorts of BASIC techniques from.

And, inspired (if that's the right word) by a couple of fruit machine programs in those magazines, it was in March 1989, aged nine, that I wrote an original sequel to them, that I called Jackpot 3 - which would become my first ever submission to the comp.sys.sinclair Crap Games Competition... even if it had to wait a while.

Bad things happened. My dad contracted lymphoma in 1992 and died from it in July 1993, aged only 50. (I'm less than a decade away from that now and I'm already watching to see if the Grim Reaper's tracking me.) In his final few months he'd ordered a PC for the family, which he would not live to see delivered - and was wondering out loud if there was some way that Spectrum programs could be transferred onto a PC. After all, even a 33 MHz 486SX with a puny 250 MB hard drive running Windows 3.1 was a powerhouse compared to the humble old Speccy, so it must be possible, mustn't it? Somehow?

Quite by accident, I found he was right. By 1997 I'd aced my A-levels, scored a place at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and sometime around the early months of 1998, when the college computer room was still under 'D' staircase, I caught sight of a ZX Spectrum webpage, and I still remember the URL. - and it should come as no surprise to those in the know that it was Philip Kendall looking at it, the same Philip Kendall who developed the Fuse emulator, and who was a contemporary of mine at Trinity Hall, two years above me. Cheers, Phil, you probably never knew it, but you're the reason I discovered emulation! I found the X128 emulator worked best of those I found on the Czech website, as well as Warajevo which allowed me to transfer all my old Spectrum tapes to Z80 snapshots. That's not something I'd advocate now for preservation purposes, but everyone has to start somewhere!

Come 2002, I'd aced my finals (a year before) and started a PhD at the University of Nottingham. It was one hell of a hard job, and I need something to take my mind off it when times were tough, which was pretty much all of the time. And that's where World of Spectrum came in handy. I joined the forums in 2003, and discovered the comp.sys.sinclair Crap Games Competition in 2004, which was all over the forum seeing as there was a lot of crossover between WOS and CSS. I decided to enter - and my entry was the aforementioned Jackpot 3, which the late Jim Langmead, that year's host, took great pleasure in... delegating to a guest reviewer to carve to bits. To actually do something new, now that I had all sorts of emulators at hand, I thought I'd write a ZX80 game... at least, as much of a game as ever could be made on a ZX80. It was a learning experience as I'd never owned one, and had to work round its utterly painful limitations. The result was Noughts and Crosses, and (unknown to me until the later stages of 2020...) this was the first ever ZX80 submission to the CSSCGC. Nobody had thought of doing so, in the previous eight years. And only a few months before, also in the 2004 competition, was the first ZX81 submission - so my effort, Advanced Horseshoe Magnet Simulator, based on another loose comment ripping the piss out of Codemasters on the WOS forum, was the second-ever ZX81 game. Of course, all this was mere foreplay to the masterpiece of (cynically swiped) UDGs, custom character set and PLAY commands that was Super Mario Fruit Machine.

And then... silence. I have no idea why it took so long to get back into serious Spectrum programming. Finishing my PhD took a lot of time, having a real job took... not so much time but still plenty, but after life took a serious turn for the worse in the 2010s from which I have yet to recover (and doing so is not likely in the near future, either...), I kept myself sane with Minecraft. Some will say that was a wrong turn, but I don't - and besides, take a look at the world I built that was Spectrum-themed.

I came back to the Spectrum scene in 2017 to find WOS in utter turmoil due to the drama surrounding a hand-held device which is still considered haram to this day. Even so, after a successful meet-up in Manchester with some of the forum members I could finally put a face to (including Daren of the RZX Archive), and spurred on by trying to make a compilation of "modern" (i.e. post-1993) games for my Spectrum +2's 30th birthday, I thought I'd have another crack at a Crap Game. However, it spiralled out of control and I never finished it. That's probably for the best, as the 2017 CSSCGC was GReW's ultimately-unfinished competition, and had I left it late enough, my game might have been one of those that he never reviewed. Shaun Bebbington's 2018 CSSCGC was plagued by a constantly-disappearing website, and no competition ever happened in 2019, just when I was sharpening my programming skills! (In a happy ending, the game did see the light of day, albeit three years late.)

So 2020 came around, with a rejuvenated CSSCGC courtesy of PROSM Software, a.k.a. John Connolly, a 17-year-old second-generation Spectrum enthusiast (and hence not just born after the CSSCGC had been invented, but in a year starting with a two! That's the march of time...) And then... that happened. You know what I mean. One minute it was reports from China about "a virus similar to SARS", the next it was house arrest, muzzles, authoritarianism, and insane lust for the sacrifice of liberty on the altar of safety. In April, at the peak of the trouble (or so we all thought!) I had a few half-arsed ideas for some Crap Games, and thought the best idea would be to bolt them all together as a single unit, concoct a ridiculous backstory tying it all together, liberally splatter it all with excessive amounts of loading screens, PLAY commands and references to "God-Emperor Trump" and all his screeching detractors, and convert an anime-styled personification of the horror raging around us that I'd found on into the game's Big Bad. The result was Corona Capers. I went all-out on this one, throwing every BASIC programming technique I'd ever picked up at it, with the intention it would be my magnum opus - although still a Crap Game, because after all I know only the barest basics of machine code, and it will be a scorching hot day at Amundsen-Scott Polar Research Station (shut it, Greta) before I reach the level of Jonathan Cauldwell, Dave Hughes, Alessandro Grussu or Einar Saukas.

Corona Capers was written with the sole intention of "winning" the award for Least Crap Game of 2020. With that comes either the honour or the punishment, however you might see it, of hosting this year's competition. And that's how I've arrived here.

Of course, Corona Capers was also intended to age like milk that's been left on an unshaded doorstep, in the middle of July, in Phoenix. Or in other words, Corona-chan's reign of terror was all supposed to be over and done with, within a few months. And yet, here we are at the start of 2021, with no end in sight to life inside an episode of Black Mirror - or, should I say, existence, seeing as this really can't be described as "life" in any meaningful way. At least, by hosting this competition, I have something to live for, some way of keeping myself occupied, that isn't a complete waste of everyone's time. Who knows, some of you who submit games (and hopefully not anti-games) for this year's competition might actually enjoy making them, especially if there's some effort put into it.

As far as is possible, under the continuing circumstances... enjoy the ride.