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SummaryThe Immortals (#12)
The GoodHead Over Heels is the best isometric 3D platform game for the ZX Spectrum. It is one of the best games period to emerge from the ZX Spectrum games scene, indeed it is one of the best platform games of all time. It is still very entertaining nowadays.
You control two different characters, both of them resembling cartoon dogs. Head can jump great distances and stun the enemies with his doughnut gun. Heels can run fast and carry things in his purse. Head can sit on top of Heels, in which case their abilities are pooled, but the two of them are too tall to fit through certain gaps, and some platforms vanish into hyperspace when you approach. Your mission is firstly to escape from a prison, and secondly to escape back home - but you can also choose to liberate five oppressed planets if you like, by stealing back their plundered crown jewels. The game has an opened-ended feel that is quite unlike other platform games.
It was written by Jon Ritman, a veteran of the ZX Spectrum games scene, and drawn by Bernie Drummond, a talented graphic artist who was not a computer games person. It is the sequel to the same pair's earlier Batman, an isometric 3D platform game with a similar look and feel, although Head Over Heels is greatly superior. It borrows from another early computer gaming genre, whereby you control several different characters who have complimentary abilities (there isn't a name for this type of game; typically you would control a robot that could push blocks, another one that could use switches, another one that could zap enemies etc. The same basic gameplay popped up in "Commandos" in the mid 1990s and reappears whenever you play a game in which you have to have a certain character in order to cut through a door).
Head Over Heels is very polished. Unlike previous isometric 3D games from Ultimate and others, Head Over Heels barely slows down when there are several things happening on the screen. The graphics have a uniquely attractive cartoonish style. The 128K sound and musical cues are spartan but effective. The game has an intangible quality feel; the animation does not jerk, it all feels slick and well-written. It is if nothing else a great feat of Z80 programming. The map is large and detailed, and the game has a sense of grand scale that is shared with other greats such as Jet Set Willy and Auf Wiedersehen Monty.
The rooms are puzzling but not generally frustrating. The game is tough but you get a lot of lives, and you can choose to simply run away rather than persevere. I finished the game after several months and enjoyed it immensely.
The BadHead Over Heels is almost perfect, but there are flaws. Some of the puzzles rely on booby traps that you cannot predict, a gameplay mechanic that was done to death in a later game called Rick Dangerous, and that is discredited nowadays. If you cannot predict that a certain floor block will vanish and send you to certain death, the game becomes a test of memory rather than skill.
You cannot save the game to tape, although this is no longer an issue.
Part of the ultimate solution to the final level is very frustrating. Some of the rooms extend onto several screens, so that if you exit from the top-left or top-right you remain in the same room, but a little bit further one. At one point towards the end of the game you have to exit from the bottom-left of a screen, but there is no indication that this is an exit, no offscreen arrow or depth cues. It is easy to miss, and it is the only instance of this in the game.
The graphics are of course monochrome, although they are crisp and attractive.
The Bottom LineThinking about it further, I believe without reservation that this is the pinnacle of the isometric 3D platform genre. There were very few isometric 3D games after Head Over Heels, because it was so convincingly excellent that the genre itself became superfluous. It is like the Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper" in this respect; it was the culmination of a movement and there was nothing left to say. With the exception of "Sim City" et al, the last major isometric 3D action game I can think of was Wreckers for the 16-bit machines, a turgid affair.
Head Over Heels is one of the few old 8-bit ZX Spectrum games that is still entertaining nowadays. It is part of a select band of games (including Cobra, Laser Squad, Chaos and so forth) that merely seems a little slow rather than totally alien.