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A personal look back at some of the low-budget computer games released in the 1980s by the iconic UK publisher, Mastertronic.

The Mastertronic brand finally gasped its last in 2015, years after the British publisher’s hey-day and following several mergers and takeovers. In its final form as Mastertronic Group, the company had returned to its roots as a publisher of cheap PC games.

Mastertronic was never a publisher of top-tier AAA games, but it was an ever-present name during UK home computer scene of the 1980s. It’s a name fondly remembered by anyone who ever owned a ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 or Amstrad CPC during that period.

In the late ‘80s, home computers ruled the roost in Britain. Consoles were available, but cartridge-based games cost a comparative fortune. The economics of owning a machine supported by a large library of cheap games on cassette tape were hard to dispute. It didn’t matter that they weren’t up to the same quality as those found on the Sega Master System or Nintendo Entertainment System. And, due to the tape format, childhood piracy was wonderfully rampant. Just get a blank TDK SA 90 and a tape-to-tape deck and you were good to go.

The first computer I owned was a Spectrum 48K – a gift from my gran in 1983 – before eventually going ‘next-gen’ in 1987 with a super-powered ZX Spectrum 128K +2. Both computers were significant investments and my budget for games was hard-earned through odd jobs and family nagging.

The big-name releases of the time were usually movie tie-ins or arcade conversions, often published by Ocean and US Gold. Costing between £7.99 and £15 these games were luxury purchases, something I’d ask for at Christmas or for my birthday.

The majority of my gaming thrills came from the budget software lineup available at local newsagents and published by the likes of Codemasters, Ricochet and, of course, Mastertronic. Priced at £1.99 they were affordable and almost disposable, even then.

Gnasher - ZX Spectrum

The very first Mastertronic game I ever bought was called Gnasher (which, with youthful stupidity, I pronounced Ger-nasher). It was a blatant Pac-Man rip-off but it had fantastic cover artwork and I couldn’t resist the allure of the angry-looking pill popper. I remember seeing the game in the window of my local newsagent and for a month I stored away five-pence pieces whenever I could. Every day I would check to see if the game was still there, hoping that no one else would get to it before me.

And when I finally got my prize, I discovered it was dreadful.

Mastertronic published a lot of crap, but there were also gems to unearth. Over the years I bought many titles that did make the grade. Games like Molecule Man, One Man and his Droid, Raster scan, Rockman and Speed King 2. Each one sucked away hours of my life and destroyed a few Kempston joysticks along the way.

My all-time favourite release from Mastertronic is called Rescue – an action maze game set on a spaceship infested with killer robots.

The aim of the game is to retrieve a team of scientists, power up your ship and escape. It’s notoriously tough and filled with moments of genuine panic as the relentless tank-like robots hunt you down.

Its most memorable moment comes in defeat. If the robots infiltrate your spacecraft, you can launch into hyperspace without the necessary number of power cells; destroying the ship, your enemies, and yourself in the process. Committing suicide is a fun way to make sure the bad guys don’t win.

It was though-provoking stuff for a ten-year-old. I’m not sure Harrison Ford would have approved of the cover art, however.

Mastertronic games were never Nintendo or Sega games. But Nintendo and Sega games were never £1.99.

Images via Spectrum Computing

1 comment
  1. I did not know Mastertronic was a budget publisher (for as much as I understood the concept anyway) until years later, since the only games I had from them were Ninja, Panther/L.A. Swat, Action Biker, and some release of Boulder Dash, all legitimate contenders for classics in my Atari 8-bit game library. So I wholeheartedly agree with your elegant sendoff.

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