ERIC! 200 LINES! GET TO WHERE YOU SHOULD BE!
It still makes my blood run cold. It's not just the words, though their stark all-caps authoritarian tone is unmistakably that of an imperious teacher, immovable in his quest for corridor justice.
No, it was the sound that accompanied them, the sort of screeching strident electronic squawk that only the ZX Spectrum could produce. It set your teeth on edge, forced you to recoil from the keyboard, cursing the fact that you'd been found out, again.
Add in the fact that the admonishment came cloaked in an angry spiked speech bubble, its 8-bit colour palette leaking lurid red over the scenery, and you've got an in-game punishment that assaulted the senses on every front, perfectly recalling the stomach-sinking dread of classroom guilt.
We're talking Skool Daze, of course, a 1985 game that still stands as one of the crowning achievements of the British software industry's golden age. You played as Eric, the troublesome schoolboy who must somehow retrieve a bad school report from the staffroom safe before it gets sent home to your soon-to-be-disappointed parents. The combination to the safe must be coaxed out of the teachers, by making all the school shields flash at the same time - one of those arbitrary "just because" bits of game design that you really don't see any more.
What makes Skool Daze endure, and still elicit sighs of nostalgia from Spectrum owners, is the depth of the game world, small and rudimentary though it may be. For one thing, it was customisable and you could change the names of all the characters, including various teachers, the school bully, the local tearaway and the oily swot. For a game driven by adolescent wish fulfilment, the ability to drag your actual teachers into the fantasy was a stroke of genius, years before its time.
Even more than that, it had a life and personality of its own. The school routine carried on regardless of what you were doing, and the small troupe of truculent sprites would trudge to lessons or to the canteen at the sound of the bell. The bully would go around punching people. The swot would grass you up.
If you were smart, you could get one of the other NPCs to take the blame for your misdeeds, by ensuring the teachers saw them first. You could even vandalise the blackboards, typing rude messages on rubber keys that the teacher would wearily erase before starting their droning speech bubble lectures.
It's worth taking time to appreciate just how beautifully drawn the characters were as well. Each one really is a miniature masterpiece of economic design, using a handful of pixels to create distinctive and recognisable school stereotypes, all the better to populate its cheeky Bash Street meets Grange Hill milieu. The bully's crew-cut. The swot's chinless gawkiness. Mr Wacker's officious stride. All memorable, brilliant little details that reveal genuine passion and care in their construction.
Skool Daze was also notoriously difficult, with draconian punishments dished out repeatedly for harmless offences. Get 10,000 lines in one school day and it's Game Over, and since the teachers would continually dish out lines in random multiples of 100 until you got to where you were supposed to be, it took superhuman luck (and some skill) to make it through the school day, let alone hit all those bloody shields.
That's assuming you weren't stuck in one of the classrooms with not enough seats forcing you into a game of musical chairs, with lines dished out every time you unavoidably got knocked on your arse. It's funny, but at the time we didn't even think of it as cruel, punitive design, more an accurate reflection of school being so unfair.
That imbalance was corrected in the sequel, aptly titled Back to Skool and released the same year. It's rather revealing that the biggest changes were stuff around the edges, more ways to muck about rather than a drastic evolution of the core gameplay.
Stink bombs and water pistols were overdue additions to Eric's arsenal, while sherry could be added to the teacher's tea to get them drunk and pissed-up on booze. More importantly, we were introduced to the girl's school next door, and Hayley, Eric's girlfriend. A couple of playtime smooches were enough to convince her to do some of your lines, reversing the inexorable trudge towards expulsion from the first game.
With the expanded map came more ambitious challenges, not least the daring bike jump over the school gate that allowed you to sneak into the girl's school and release a mouse, causing a near riot. It's moments like that, more than any item-hunting gameplay objective, that live on in the memory.
And that's the real genius of Skool Daze, and one of the reasons why I still think of it as one of the precursors to the openworld template that so many games utilise today. The school itself is anything but open, but the game wisely stepped back and let the player dictate their fate by allowing you to do pretty much whatever you wanted within the narrow confines of its tiny world.
It's perhaps no surprise that it was Rockstar who finally brought the spirit of Skool Daze back to gaming with its 2006 educational opus, Bully. The game paid tribute to the pioneering nature of its predecessor with multiple distractions and ways to cause mischief, but the soul was missing. The move to an American public school was part of it, losing the innocent, ramshackle charm of a very British location, but it was also missing a sense of innocence.
The protagonist of Bully was cynical and cool, an anti-hero who could grow up to star in a blistering action game with guns and explosions. But Skool Daze was never about the cool kids. It was about the survival of Eric the everyman (or boy), a game steeped in the comic strips of Leo Baxendale, a self-contained alternate world where dinner ladies were ogres, plates were piled high with bangers and mash, and cheeky kids yelled "Ooyah!" as they received a final panel slippering for their errant behaviour.
That world has long gone, swept away by the Americanisation of British school life and the stifling regimentation of Ofsted reports and nationwide educational initiatives. Nobody does lines any more. Scrawling graffiti on an interactive whiteboard just isn't the same. Yet Skool Daze lives on as an echo, a quaint combination of post-war schooling and post-punk anarchy that flourished, briefly and brilliantly, in the parochial backwash of pop culture that was the 1980s.
That, perhaps, makes it a perfect nostalgia piece. It's less about how school really was, more about how we imagined it to be and for all its gameplay innovations, the culture that made it unique, that gave it personality, simply no longer exists.