The future will be a scary place. Well, no, that's not quite accurate - it'll be a scary place for a bit, then a rather quiet place. As we'll all be dead. Probably eradicated by one of several enticing options: total thermonuclear war (fried), wacky climactic changes (fried and drowned) or a fatal galactic event like asteroids smashing into Earth / the Sun exploding / aliens popping by on a madcap conquering spree (fried, drowned, exploded and then zapped into teeny-tiny gobs of flesh).
However, while this rotating orb remains in place, the future holds power for those who might predict it. Cynics and people with eyes may suggest fortune-tellers are mere fraudsters; skilled cold readers who ply their trade to keep the pay cheques fluttering in. But maybe the reality runs much deeper. Maybe these purveyors of precognition are just a smoke-screen for the real soothsayers - a cabal of powerful figures who seek to shape the world around us. Thanks to the acquisition of secret documents uncovered by the Knights Templar, Eurogamer:Retro can exclusively reveal details of an alleged Illuminati plot to broadcast visions of the future through the software of a rubber-keyed home computer.
Did Spectrum programmers really insert clues to forthcoming events in their games, or is the very idea as incongruous as silver bodysuits and nuclear toasters? We raided the World of Spectrum archives to find out.
Our search began on the cusp of the twenty-first century. The countdown to the year 2000 was laden with prophecies of doom and horror, from the usual religious-themed cataclysms to sombre concerns about poor little computers getting all confused and deciding it's 1900. The British government even issued leaflets assuring us our vacuum cleaners wouldn't go mental after midnight. Could Crystal Computing's Bug Blaster game from 1984 have eerily foreshadowed these events? As players moved their purple triangle of truth from side to side, blasting amorphous green and blue shapes (perhaps representing bad journalism and weak science), were they unwittingly witnessing a withering critique of the hysteria which would surround the Millennium Bug? It seemed unlikely, but we'd merely scratched the surface.
Three years after Bug Blaster, another warning from the void appeared. After some time in the commercial wilderness, Summit Software's 1999 found its way onto a Your Sinclair covertape. Was it mere coincidence that this game appeared on The Universe's Biggest Selling Spectrum MagŪ, or the work of a shadowy, invisible hand? Whatever the case, we were intrigued to discover that the release contained clear references to two millennial concerns, thirteen years before they occurred. The first, an oblique nod to the coming ubiquity of Prince's "1999" single, communicated via the loading screen placement of the game's title directly next to a huge purple planet. An accurate prediction, but one somewhat undermined by how spectacularly obvious it is.
However, 1999's content went much further, stating that the last days of the twentieth century would be humanity's last. A character named Dr Vargon would pilot his magnificent space wasp (yep) and terminate the human race. Nonsense, surely? The human race was neither exterminated during 1999, nor plagued by giant wasps - save for the giant hornets indigenous to Earth. Yet the game is somewhat tricky, perhaps alluding to the fact that the mysterious Dr Vargon had indeed planned to bring death to us all, but was blown up by some pesky space-diamonds. Space diamonds funded and launched by NASA? Perhaps.
Closer to home, we unearthed a number of uncanny social observations. 1994: Ten Years After stayed well clear of the millennium trap, choosing instead to focus on Orwellian surveillance nightmares. Indeed, the entire game is a nod to 1984, explaining: "Mr Orwell got it all wrong, not the principle, mind you, just the date." Prescient indeed, as the Manic Miner-esque gameplay features a central computer awash with personal details, security cameras at every turn and jelly-shaped robots. Still, two out of three isn't bad; although any clairvoyant credit regarding the sinister paths being taken by British authorities really ought to go George. But who published such a far-sighted game? Step forward, the aptly-named Visions Software Factory.
Let's All Meet Up In The Year...
Things were getting strange. Having exhausted the clues from Spectrum games set in the 1990s, we plunged headlong into a series of titles tagged with the symbolic 2000 figure. It was a monumentally poor decision. Like those with post-New Year hangovers, the games were both sluggish and painful to look at.
Bowling 2000 and Deathball 2000 had each taken the sporting theme and run with it. As it turned out, into the brick wall of unplayability. Our interest had initially been tweaked by Bowling 2000's Eastern European presentation and the confrontational name chosen by its developer (Fuxoft). The robot bowling theme and exploding pins had hinted at covert technology, but it soon became clear we'd fallen foul of an old KGB plot to throw people off the scent. Nothing relating to the destiny of mankind was to be found within such a grim excuse for software. This was a herring of Soviet hue.
Deathball was a similarly blind lead. Despite lofty promises of a Speedball-style exposure of a suppressed underground sport, it turned out to be a tedious sub-3D maze of frustration and slow response times. We grudgingly acknowledged that the year 2000 had no hushed-up sports falsely promising extreme violence in deserted warehouses. Not unless you count Robot Wars as a sport - and we most certainly did not. Someone was messing us around.
Confused, we rang our contact in the Templars. He seemed agitated and told us to hang up because Dan Brown was waiting on the other line. When we called back, the number had been disconnected - in its place, a curious selection of tonal beeps. Two days later, we unravelled this parting message. When run through a decoder, the tones provided ordinance map coordinates which pointed directly at the birthplace of Mary Shelley. In our haste we'd overlooked an obvious candidate for study: Frankenstein 2000.
Though also a proud member of the not-especially-splendid games club, Frankie held the key to some startling revelations. Beneath the copious borrowing from Fantastic Voyage and some tremendously weak puns (they're frogs ... in a throat ... ah, do you see?), there lay the tantalising fingerprints of an organisation preparing our fragile human minds for developments in medical science. Nano-surgery, genetics, the addition of so many new organs to a body that the recipient is almost a literal Frankenstein's monster, it was all here. Smoothing the way for quiet public acceptance of what would previously have been considered impossible.
At a loss where to turn next, we drummed our fingers until a man calling himself The Interface urged us to meet with him in an abandoned Sinclair C5 factory. Inside, he showed us slides of a frightening and barely-recognisable dystopia. Gasping, we gradually realised that the military-grade space hardware being shown off in eight glorious colours were stills from Cascade Games' ACE 2088. The Interface informed us that the game was released in 1988, to a mixed reception, but that it directly predicts a move towards major nations exploring and defending areas outside of Earth's atmosphere. ACE 2088 was, he said, unnervingly similar to training booth blueprints leaked from inside the Pentagon.
Alarmed, we pressed him further. He furtively dusted off an 8mm camera and ran some equally disturbing footage. We witnessed deserts encroaching on cubist cityscapes, sparsely populated by drivers of deadly automobiles. Our source explained that this was the world of Games Workshop's Battlecars, a deep insight into the way our planet would be heading in the next fifty years. A lack of oil and hope will ultimately result in a dwindling population battling over scarce resources and looking for the next opportunity to bung a massive laser on their Volvo. We were sceptical whether road rage could ever reach such levels, but The Interface simply mouthed the words 'Clarkson' and 'phone-in radio programmes about speed cameras.'
Most upsetting of all was his theory on the fate of our beautiful game. In 1985, he claimed, Ocean's Match Day foretold the sorry state of football. The rudimentary graphics document how, at the end of this century, a spineless FIFA finally capitulates to the demands of Europe's richest clubs. Those footballing powerhouses will ultimately decide that fielding eleven players is too confusing for the average supporter, who want to see as many stars as possible - not journeyman left backs. As such, seven-a-side teams will play inside huge gravity-reducing domes, slowing play down to a crawl, but allowing supporters more chance to pop out for a pie and a pint without missing too many free-flowing attacks. Goalkeepers will be forced to take Mogadon before every game, entirely removing their chances of saving anything. We had to look away as The Interface zoomed in on a grey-faced crowd, bound by their loyalty and club-sponsored brain chips to pay two hundred pounds a time to witness such shameful dross. It was too much to bear.
When we tried to reach The Interface for a second time, it was too late. We returned to the factory, only to find him slumped in the seat of one of Sir Clive's finest. Someone had jostled the information right out of him. His memory was wiped clean.
That, readers, is where our trail went cold. Further phone calls were met with stony silence or hissed instructions to stop digging. We were frustrated. What, if anything, had really been deduced? Little more than a handful of coincidences pointing toward a questionable hypothesis; a set of clues so teasing we had to take a cold shower after even glancing at them. Had sinister figures inserted future events into Spectrum games between 1982 and 1988? Could the key to our fate be hidden inside 8-bit technology? Our research was inconclusive. We merely present the facts as we found them. The rest is up to you. We're through the BASIC here, people ...
Join us next month, as we purchase FBI-style flashlights and bustle around in dark rooms whilst attempting to uncover whether back-engineered alien hardware was used to create the Kempston joystick.