There's a part of me that inwardly grins whenever I see the latest big video game release condemned as a 'broken, unplayable mess' by the internet masses. The last notable title to garner such derision was Sega's Aliens: Colonial Marines, which I purchased a few months ago for £1.99 from a popular high street retailer. Far from a 'broken, unplayable mess', I found Colonial Marines to be an enjoyable, if flawed, effort. Not perfect by any means, but good for a modicum of xenomorphic blasting fun.
Coincidentally, for the same money, you could have obtained a brand-spanking new copy of Sqij! back in the summer of 1987, a time when budget games were part of the slow death march of the 8-bit videogames market in the UK. Sqij! was released by a company called The Power House, which had begun life a year earlier as Alpha-Omega, the budget offspring of publisher and developer CRL Group. The ZX Spectrum version of Sqij! is renowned as one of the worst games ever; due to a bug, it couldn't actually be played at all - surely the very definition of a broken, unplayable mess. Yet the story of Sqij! doesn't begin on the Spectrum, but on its great rival, the Commodore 64 and a 12-year old by the name of Jason Kendall.
"I'd learned BASIC on a Commodore PET at my school," says Kendall. "I talked my mum and dad into getting me a VIC-20 and started learning 6502 assembly language. When the C64 launched, I got one and wrote Sqij! - my first attempt at a game." The young coder despatched several demo cassettes to mainly budget games companies, and Alpha-Omega were soon in touch. "I was 13 when I sold it to them, and the cassette inlay had a photo of me in it! It got me the princely sum of £300."
No small amount for a 13-year old boy in 1987, although Kendall admits the game took over a year to create. "I was using it as a vehicle to learn 6502 and the C64's architecture, and also at school, so it took a while. As to the concept - yes it was a bit barmy - I just started writing a screen-flipping maze program and decided I wanted a gravity-pulled flying character. I was well into Jeff Minter's stuff at the time and his psychedelic llamas, so it became a mutant bird."
The mission for the eponymous avian was to locate six pieces of a mystical tree that could grant it everlasting life, and the parts lay scattered around a cave called Lotz-Too-Weet. "I remember Alpha-Omega being quite enthusiastic, but let's face it, it was a very basic game. I have no idea where the name came from, but I was dead chuffed to even sell it at 13!" When The Power House asked Kendall if he could provide a Spectrum conversion, the novitiate coder politely declined. "I didn't know Z80, and wasn't really interested in learning it at the time; I was getting into the Commodore 64 and then the Amiga." So Sqij's publishers turned to another young contact to convert the game to the ZX Spectrum: Jason Creighton.
Creighton had already sent several demo efforts to CRL who in turn passed the tapes to its budget label. With these apparently unwanted (there is no record of them in World Of Spectrum), Alpha-Omega boss Ashley Hildebrandt kept Creighton's number in case he ever needed him - and now was that time. "They just called and said they had a Commodore 64 game that needed converting," recalls Creighton. "I'd originally intended to write the software in machine code and make a decent effort of it." So what happened? "I was unable to start the job," he sighs, "as there were some items I needed. So I revisited the CRL office to try and get them. Some short guy starts moaning at me for no reason, saying it was all my fault for not having this or that."
According to the coder, CRL had failed to supply a copy of the Commodore 64 game he was supposed to be converting - a fairly critical item, one would assume. "I finally got it at the end of January - but on disc, and I had no disc drive. So I only ever saw the game at CRL's offices." Undeterred, the publisher sent Creighton a copy of Sqij's map and began to pester him for the conversion. "I had one month left. At that point I also had my exams creeping up on me and the pressure was building. All combined, I thought sod it, I'm not doing it." CRL, however, would not take no for an answer, and Creighton's ambition of creating a fast, machine code conversion disappeared overnight. In order to meet the deadline, he used a programming extender package - Ocean Software's Laser BASIC. "I'd heard about it, and saw it in a computer shop. I bought it and its compiler, to play with and ran it past Ashley Hildebrandt that I was using it."
Hildebrandt's role at CRL appears to have been software manager, his remit to acquire new games from third parties and organise conversions to other formats. "I would never have known Laser BASIC if it bit me on the behind," he admits, "nor did I have any contacts at Ocean, technical or otherwise. It must have been someone at CRL, although I was rarely at King's Yard [CRL's offices] in those days - relations between Clem [CRL boss] and I were strained for quite some time." Hildebrandt invested in taking The Power House label away from CRL in 1988, but disappeared from the industry shortly afterwards, another apparent victim of the rapidly changing software landscape. Further enquiries at CRL have yielded either no response or blank faces; it appears everyone involved, maybe with good reason, simply wants to forget about Sqij!.
But what of those poor unfortunate souls who shelled out a penny shy of two pounds for this lamentable excuse of a game? Did Sqij! really contain a bug that made the game fundamentally unplayable? Its author says he was unaware of the bug when sending the game to The Power House. Being a non-technical type, I called in a friend, Steve Clark of developer Origin8, to have a furtive glance under Sqij!'s hood so we could find out exactly what was going wrong and why.
"30 years ago I bought Laser BASIC on a whim in WH Smith Croydon, and it was the first extended language utility I used," Clark tells me, "And it's a bit weird to find a use for it after all these years!" The Origin8 man's first peek reveals an odd poke. "The loader program has a call to poke 23658,8, which basically enforces caps lock. It stuck in my head as weird because it's unusual to require this in a game, and just wastes neurons." Sqij! has no joystick option: it's the keyboard or nothing. Unfortunately, as Steve reveals, this is the root of the problem. "Thanks to the wonder of emulators, I can see the bytes of the script. The code is using checks for INKEY$="z", "x" and so on. That's great while the system keyboard is returning z or x - but it's not, it's actually returning Z or X because the initial loader sets the caps lock." Is it a programming error? Unlikely, as it's a strange code to include by accident. In any case (pun excused), Creighton denies inserting the poke. "I most certainly did not place the poke there - that's seriously weird. I suspected that maybe it was because of Laser BASIC running on an emulator." I've since loaded Sqij! up on my Spectrum +2 and original Spectrum 48k rubber-key model. Neither work. So it's there, in the original code, and assuming Creighton's memory is not as unreliable as his game, someone else put it there, a bizarrely abstruse act of sabotage or a misguided attempt to improve the game.
Whatever its origins, Sqij! was clearly unplayable, even back in 1987. The Power House included the game as part of an eight-game compilation a few months later, and it remained unchanged, sharing space with other classics such as Slingshot, Cyrox and Hercules. Did the publisher not realise the game was unplayable? In the chaotic world of 8-bit development in the late Eighties, the rush to re-use product was intense - CRL itself was enduring a turbulent phase, so it's quite possible Sqij! evaded playtesting. But surely someone loaded it up before it was published? Evidently not, or they plainly didn't care.
Creighton himself is unsurprisingly cynical over the whole affair. "At £1.99 the game wholesaled for 75p, payment was 10p per unit and you were offered either £500 or £1000 outright at least. I never worked out how many games you needed to sell to get the grand, probably in the region of 13 thousand copies. For a laugh I rang CRL to ask for payment, and was told Sqij! had sold a massive 250 copies, and that I was due £25." The coder never even received this not-exactly-life-changing amount. "No surprise there then! But to be honest I never expected it to get published. I was so fed up with it I never even bothered to compile the game." Yes, pay £1.99 for Sqij! and anyone with half a pixel of programming nous got some nice Laser BASIC code thrown in. "I was 15," says Creighton, "and unaware that it was even possibly illegal." The teenager worked briefly with an unreleased project for antipodean publisher Melbourne House before moving on in life, to his A-Levels and university. But how does he feel today as the man responsible for one of the ZX Spectrum's worst commercial releases, a game that sits at the summit of World Of Spectrum's list of 100 worst games? "Well at first I was horrified," he shudders, "but now I laugh at it. I mean, at least I've achieved something...I just can't believe people are still talking about it 30 years later..." Yes, and writing about it too I add, a touch embarrassedly.
The story of Sqij! is one unique to its time, where schoolboy amateur coders could create games that would end up on the shelves of software shops all over the country. A time when publishers were disappearing with frightening rapidity, and royalty payments too often rock-bottom priorities. A time when 250 people could buy a game that simply did not work at all. So, the next time you pick up your controller and feel the need to vent an indignant rage on the internet, take a moment to think about Sqij!, and wonder if the game you are playing isn't such an unplayable, broken mess after all.