Retrospective: Skool Daze and Back to Skool
Chalk and cheese.
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.