If you’re into the modern Commodore 64 scene, you’ve heard of Psytronik. The developer/publishing house has been around since 1993, ten years after the launch of the original C64, at a time when saying 8-bit computers were out of date was already redundant. The first title released under their banner was a clever Commodore 64 port of a 1987 ZX Spectrum game, a fairly popular platform-meets-puzzler with a vague Prince of Persia vibe named Sceptre of Baghdad. Sceptre was created by then-developers Phoenix Computers (a two-person team of programmer Jonathan Wells and musician Paul Hannay).
If you want to know more about the origins of Psytronik and some details of their other games, check out RVG’s own excellent Psytronik RETROspective.
Reviewed on: VICE for MacOS (C64C PAL)
Genies, Puzzles, and Demons
The first thing that struck me when starting up Sceptre for the first time was the professional level of the presentation: the boot menu(s) offer graphics, intelligently animated text and bouncy chiptunes, loading is long but not excessive, and there are plenty of options, including the ability to load a previous game. Despite being an after-market release for a decade-old computer, Psytronik and Phoenix put their best feet forward in this regard.
There’s also a scrolling prologue text sequence that sets up a fairly simple plot: you’re the caliph (emperor), and the night before a special New Years ceremony, you wake up in the middle of the night, half your size and with your castle invaded by demons. An evil wizard is attempting to usurp you, so you enlist the advice of your household genie, who can’t leave his lamp but can give you tips throughout your quest.
The original version of Sceptre on the ZX 48k used a Mario-esque turban-wearing protagonist, but he was replaced in this conversion by a taller and slimmer Prince of Persia-y sprite.
Speaking of the player sprite, the game implements the hero as a multicolor, high-resolution sprite, which is no easy feat for the C64’s VIC-II video chip. There is no screen scrolling, but multicolor backgrounds provide excellent flavor and the game runs at a very smooth 50 FPS.
It controls well too, with very responsive movement — a good thing, since the action is fairly quick, and platforming is precise. The only gripe I have is the slightly cumbersome inventory system: the caliph can hold four items at a time, and you cycle through them via the slightly unintuitive ‘F1’ key. Anything other than this would probably have been preferable – the number keys 1-4 comes to mind immediately. Otherwise, up on the joystick jumps, and down picks up an item on the ground and exchanges it with the one in your hand, or enters doorways/otherwise interacts with the environment.
The music is difficult to find fault with. Hannay composed an extra-long SID track that plays throughout the game which is basically lots of variations on a theme, giving the game its own unique sound in addition to providing an energetic (and slightly haunting) background for the player that doesn’t get too repetitive. (I left the game running and jammed to it a bit while working.)
Sceptre has an open map, totally free to explore, that is comprised of several dozen screens. Each screen can be classified in one of two ways, a ‘DEMON RAID’ (as displayed at the bottom of the screen), or a normal screen (or puzzle screen). When in a demon raid, the fire button shoots attack magic, otherwise it does nothing. If you’re touched by a demon, you lose health (represented by caliph faces that turn to skulls when you’re hit) and its game over once your health is gone.
The game opens with you at your genie’s lamp, a couple innocuous-looking items in your inventory, and no clues.
At this point, I thought, “Ah. I’m home.”
There is very little not to like here. I came in with zero expectations and found a hidden gem of a title which should, by all regards, be considered a classic. Yet here I am, a supposed retro gamer, and I had never even heard of Sceptre of Baghdad before a couple of weeks ago.
I found myself drawing my own map of the palace, despite finding one in an ancient Spectrum magazine scan online, marking locations of items, and taking notes on the game’s limited, cryptic clues. At times I died from my wounds battling demons, at times a puzzle, others I burned to death. Each one was a learning experience, in the way only an old-school gem could be.
Sceptre isn’t an extremely long game, nor a particularly complex one, but it is very charming, and very, very well put together. I didn’t encounter any bugs, and I even sat and regarded the screen for long moments, impressed at the 8-bit feat made by two guys some 25 years ago.
Is it worth it?
Unfortunately, it’s not possible at the moment to obtain a hard copy of Sceptre from Psytronik directly at the moment. A shame, considering the gorgeous disk art.
As of writing (April 2018), there were several new copies available on eBay, if you’re lucky enough to own a PAL Commodore 64. I was pleasantly surprised by Sceptre of Baghdad, and chances are if your curiosity has gotten you this far, you will be too.
+Smooth gameplay, colorful sprites and backgrounds
+Good balance of twitch action and thinking gameplay
+Encourages puzzle solving and exploration in a positive, classic way
-Can be difficult to come by a copy of the game
-Requires a bit of investment and trial and error
-Inventory system is sorta unintuitive