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Chaos Theory

Ahead of its time and utterly wizard.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Let's ensure nobody is under any illusions: I love Chaos on the ZX Spectrum. Love it to bits. Were I to find myself compiling a list of super-splendid games, Chaos would be in there somewhere. If some terrible magnetic beast was systematically destroying every Speccy game in existence and I had the chance to save just one, I would not hesitate in snatching up Chaos and cradling it in my arms. Had Chaos been born a woman, I... well, no, that's getting a little disturbing.

Chaos, then. I'm quite a fan.

When we compiled Eurogamer's 50 Classic Spectrum games, my beloved missed the cut. That was okay. I understood. The list was intended as a launching pad for this very Retro section, and a game as pioneering as Chaos could have thrown the whole concept off its axis. We were looking back at the outstanding titles of yesteryear. The inclusion of a creation which stares so intently forward could have caused all sorts of confusion.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Limboing Up

Eight players, you see? Eight!

For the uninitiated, Chaos is Julian Gollop's battle of wizards. Two-to-eight sorcerers (any or all of whom may be human or CPU controlled) face off across the single screen void of Limbo. Each has a simple aim - to obliterate all opposition and be the last wiz standing. We're never really told why, but no doubt the winner can milk their triumph as an impressive anecdote down the Magic Pub for years to come.

In order to massacre their competitors as efficiently as possible, every long-sleeved trickster has a substantial list of spells. These range from the ability to summon creatures or enchanted weaponry to the kind of destructive energies far removed from the standard sawing-a-volunteer-in-half routine. Further to this, certain creatures have special attributes; they may be able to fire bows, provide a wizardly mount or lust after blood and brains in the way only undead beings can. As if that's not enough, every single beastie can also be cast as a mind-boggling illusion. Doing so ensures the casting will be successful (helpful if you're trying to drag an extremely powerful Golden Dragon out of nowhere), but also leaves your new pal vulnerable to the re-usable Disbelieve spell.

Players progress in a takey-turny fashion, using spells and moving their charges around the screen until they meet in stats-based battles. Phew, is that it? Not quite. Prolonged bouts of wizardry also affect the state of the magical universe. Each spell possesses a chaotic or lawful rating which pollutes the atmosphere when cast (goblins and the like being minorly chaotic and hippy unicorns doing their bit for lawfulness). As the universe gradually tips toward darkness or light, spells of that hue become easier to pull off.

Corporeal Jonlan

Lots of thunder and lightning. Well... lots of lightning.

All rather strategic, as I'm sure you can tell. In fact that's something of an understatement. A tussle between eight real, actual flesh and bones players offers a terrific clash of intellect, psychological misdirection and good old-fashioned abuse. In short, Chaos is the original party game. I suppose charades or dominoes or whipping the servants probably got there first, but in the sense that the term now applies to a computer or console release that can hold the attention of a roomful of people, Gollop's masterpiece is legitimately amongst the forebears.

Admittedly, it doesn't boast the immediacy of Donkey Konga or Mario Kart - the gameplay is more akin to an elaborate version of chess or something from the Dungeons & Dragons stable. As post-drinking fare, it's probably going to struggle. Locate seven friends in want of a semi-cerebral challenge, however, and you could just about make an afternoon of it. Let's just dwell on that a touch longer. An eight-player game. In 1985. For a home computer system. Not quite massively multiplayer, but moderately multiplayer at least. Even the arcades couldn't compete with that.

Demanding every human player actually be in attendance presents the usual problems (too busy washing their hair and so forth), but opens up exciting possibilities. Unlike endeavours that rely upon random internet recruits, Chaos (and others) are able to transcend the trials and tribulations of having to deal with hopeless pricks. Instead, you're dealing with hopeless pricks who're also your friends. Simple, immature mockery seems far more effective in person, coming across as sporting wordplay. Far more honourable, somehow, than a stranger ranting over a headset. The close proximity also adds another dimension - that of wobbly alliances. Gaps between play mean players can work the room, cajoling, begging and threatening others into dubious non-aggression pacts or temporary partnerships. Bluff and double bluff take a central role, as the puppet ally you'd just bribed with snacks suddenly goes rogue in a bid for personal glory. Charred, broken friendships will litter the room in a way not seen since family Monopoly sessions.

That's entertainment!

Mod Squad

I have a knife ... and not much else.

Interestingly, Chaos even nods towards the culture of a modern, online release. With the correct technical know-how, the title is fully mod-able. Frankly it's beyond me, but Usenet archives reveal the guts of the game with surgical precision - including details of spells unused in the standard version. It appears possible to change almost everything, from creature and spell properties to sprite colours. There's something wonderful about this level of devotion being shown to a game that, even at the time, was a decade old.

As if wishing to demonstrate a final affinity towards programs to come, Chaos also contains a handful of quirky bugs. Happily, none of these are game-breakers. In fact, some add extra levels of tactical depth - such as the infamous 'flee combat by repeatedly attacking an empty square' trick, and the ability to create an undead wizard by mounting a steed which has risen from the grave. So that's alright then.

It can be easy to look back on a game enjoyed in youth and raise it to a level which others may find mystifying. Accusations of wearing spectacles of a rosy tint are launched from all sides. Sometimes, with justification. A revisit can tarnish those fond memories, demanding a rapid critical reassessment, but I've yet to reach that point with Chaos. Every time I play, it feels just as magnificent. The claustrophobic cast-and-thrust refuses to become tiresome. I'll be loading it shortly to take some screenshots, and I'm resigned to the fact that it'll inevitably suck up the rest of my evening. Graphically it could benefit from an overhaul - and a proper online multiplayer version, despite the inferiority to playing with a room of chums, would be of interest - but the structure and balance remain as solid as ever. Oh, just trust me.

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