Gaming Made Me: Frankie Goes To Hollywood

By RPS on July 2nd, 2011 at 11:41 am.

A true one-of-a-kind in the latest in our series of highly subjective retrospectives on landmark computer games. This week, writer Paul Dean looks at bizarre, ambitious Spectrum game/band spin-off Frankie Goes To Hollywood – a game of pop music, terraced houses, sperm, Nazi bombers, Reagan spitting at Gorbachev and murder most foul. Confused? Relax, don’t do it, when you want to comment angrily.

I had a lot of tapes for my Spectrum. Some had come with it, some were inherited, and some came from the covers of the flimsy and often monochrome computer magazines of the day. More than a few were borrowed or copied from friends at school and we quickly realised that you could fit an awful lot of pirated Spectrum software onto a 90 minute tape, turning a single cassette into a veritable treasure trove, a pocketful of possibilities that felt heavy at your hip and which you couldn’t wait to run home with.

It wasn’t long before I had piles of the things, teetering stacks of cassette tapes that I tried to jam into cheap and horrid storage towers, towers which were supposed to rotate on their plastic bases but instead usually jammed or just broke. Sometimes, or rather often, my ill-arranged stacks would collapse with a terrible crash, inevitably shattering one or two more cassette cases as they did so. I probably had miles worth of magnetic tape spooled up in those things.

It was impossible to trace the origins of much of this library and I frequently had no clue where certain games, legitimate copies or not, had come from, or who had bought them, or why. (And it’s probably not beyond the bounds of possibility that some games simply bred, two adjacent and neglected titles deciding, in their loneliness, to conceive a third.) Among them, Frankie Goes to Hollywood appeared one day, but I don’t remember when, or how, or where. It was part of a compilation by the publisher Ocean. It contained half a dozen of their movie and celebrity-related titles, including the infamous Daley Thomspon game that required you to violently assault your keyboard in order to make any kind of progress.

For some reason, Ocean decided that it was okay to re-release Frankie without any instructions at all. There was no explanation of what was going on in the game, no clue as to what I should be doing, no guide to get me started. Looking back, I realise now that this was the best possible way to approach this game, because Frankie makes absolutely no sense anyway. It was, and still is, one of the strangest, most abstract and most avant-garde gaming experiences I’ve ever had, but this also made it one of the most wonderful. A little bit of magic had materialised in my bedroom and Frankie had an extremely important message for me.

Appearances could be deceptive and there was little about the first impressions of this game that set it apart from many others that I’d tossed aside. At first, it seemed like another example of the side-scrolling, two dimensional maze games that were so typical of the time. To me, flip-screen adventures like Tir Na Nog and Sabre Wulf felt like long, featureless and sprawling labyrinths, made worse because they had to be exhaustively explored from a sideways viewpoint that made it very difficult for me to visualise the layout I was trudging through. What’s more, Frankie was set in a typical Merseyside neighbourhood and had me making my way through the living rooms and kitchens of a street of terraced houses, possibly the most mundane setting possible for a computer game.

This apparent triviality was the whole point and Frankie didn’t need me to search out every corner of its town, because adventure was everywhere and the most extraordinary secrets were hidden only just behind the thin veneer of reality that I thought I was exploring. The slightest touch upon some household object, perhaps a lamp or a television set, could throw open a portal to an entirely different world.

I could pick up a telephone and find something unexpected at the end of the line, the game opening a small window through which, if I chose, I could step into a an eccentric minigame. Each of these had a simple and immediately obvious objective, but they made absolutely no sense in the context of the game (and arguably still don’t). Take the spitting contest, for example, where I was suddenly given control of a disembodied head that had to hit a rival with twenty globs of mucus, or the sudden call to man AA guns that had me defending Liverpool from Nazi bombers. I might find myself in a shooting gallery or collecting flowers that fell from the sky.

Completing these games meant that some mysterious, ever-watchful authority known as Frankie granted me Pleasure Points, a reward I’d also receive for exploring, for collecting items and for solving simple puzzles. For example, what do you do with the milk in the fridge? Why, you feed it to the cat, while the heavy coat in the hallway is useful protection in one of the minigames. The fish are literally red herrings.

Pleasure Points would gradually increase four bars on the right of the screen, each representing sex, war, love and faith, the equivalent of both a score and also my progress towards completing the game. I didn’t know it at the time, but the icon representing sex was actually a circle made from two sperm. I also, I should probably point out, had no idea who the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood were, nor did I know that the spitting head I controlled was that of Ronald Reagan, that I was spitting at Gorbachev, even that one target on my firing range was Margaret Thatcher. I was simply a kid wandering through a placid neighbourhood while strange and unusual games appeared out of nowhere. What did I know? I was seven.

Then there was the murder.

Sooner or later, I would always come upon the formless, sinister shape of a dead body and a further dimension would be added to Frankie. While exploring, clues would occasionally appear as to the identity of the killer, as well as information about the various suspects, from which it would eventually be possible to deduce the identity of the murderer, something that would bring a massive boost to my score. I discovered that if I could max out any of my four bars, they were topped by letters that, together, would spell BANG.

But I never got that far. I would get lost in the strangely deserted and alarmingly sterile houses or, even worse, find myself directionless inside the blank labyrinth that lay nestled within some of the minigames, a maze within a maze. I couldn’t find all the items I needed to complete each of the puzzles, nor those that would open yet more portals to even stranger locations. I never got a handle on this game. I never knew what to expect next.

Frankie was my Narnia, my invitation to step out of my reality and explore the possibilities that might exist behind it and beyond it, perhaps behind the very next door. It was a mystery that never explained itself but never needed to, because it was about the journey, not the objective, about opening minds as well as opening portals. It seemed to be telling me that curiosity and playfulness were more important than explanations or conclusions. “Look what you can find, if you go searching,” it said to me. “The world is full of hidden wonders, but only for those who look for them.”

Even with an adult’s eyes, and playing it again on World of Spectrum, Frankie Goes to Hollywood is still a strange experience for me. I find it remains an unusual and innovative premise for a game that is only made stranger by the loosest of connections to a famous band. I’m tempted to suggest that its reality-bending and bizarre humour might be better associated with someone like Philip K. Dick, but I suppose that would make too much sense – something that, whether by accident or by design, this game certainly does not. I don’t think I’ll ever have the pleasure of exploring quite such a curious and remarkable gaming landscape ever again but, a quarter of a century later, I still remember how it felt to step out of my reality and into the Pleasuredome.

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35 Comments »

  1. sweevi says:

    I loved FGTH, but the bug which prevented you from finishing the game was one of the major bugbears of my young life.

  2. Nick says:

    Oh god, I remember this game on my amstrad when I was a small child.. I didn’t know what the hell it was about.

  3. Antsy says:

    Thanks so much for this. The first thing I would say to anyone about this game if they asked about it would be “It was mental!”.

    I was something like 13 when this came out and although the Spectrum wasn’t starved for off the wall and mind bending games, this one stands out in my memory. Probably because someone had given me a copy of the relax 12″ instrumental around the same time, which I played non stop for weeks on that good old double-deck.

    A great game at the time. I wonder if I should start revisiting these old games. I’ve been afraid to because frankly there’s no way they can even mimic the magic I felt while playing them as a young ‘un.

    • Archonsod says:

      I think FGtH is unique in that no matter how old you are you still end up bewildered, nonplussed and confused. All that age really does is alter how regular a feeling this is for you I guess.

      I went back to it a couple of years ago armed with instructions and a guide cobbled off the internets. I still have no idea what the hell was happening.

  4. tossrStu says:

    I had to convince my parents that this wasn’t a Trojan horse of youth-corrupting debauchery cunningly disguised as a computer game, waiting for some poor unsuspecting child to load it into their Spectrum before shooting filth and perversion all over their innocent face. This mainly involved showing them the preview that was printed in Your Spectrum magazine, and harping on about it over the course of a rainy week-long caravan holiday in Rhyl until they eventually relented.

    I have fond memories of those homemade C90 compilations; with 10 or so titles on each one, that was at least £80 or so of games on a little cassette (unless someone stiffed you and taped you a load of £1.99 Mastertronic games — which were usually pretty good, but definitely not the equal of a £10 Ocean release).

    Ah, nostalgia. It never gets old.

    • Antsy says:

      Really getting stiffed involved sending real money to someone after reading an exciting little ad in the back of a magazine and then having Cascade 50 drop through the letter box.

      “50 great games on one cassette!” the cover declared. They were all execrable and if I remember correctly Galactic Dogfight turned out to be a sheepdog game. Swine!

    • tossrStu says:

      Heh, I had that as well! It was one of a few free games we got for joining the Home Computer Club — I still felt ripped off though.

    • 3lbFlax says:

      Brilliant. Back in my school days, certainly the FGTH days (I had the Ocean box set without instructions, too) a kid called Robert Barron (excellent name, I now realise) came to my house with a C90.

      It was full of little games he’d written himself, and he’d break into the source code to prove as much. I was impressed, though I’d seen similar quality games as magazine type-ins. He was prolific, if nothing else.

      He lent me the tape and I lent him some retail release or other, can’t recall. A few weeks later I came across a Cascade tape and realised they were exactly the same games. The next day, after class, I mentioned this to him, and right there in front of the teacher (can you believe it?) he looked at me, said ‘Fuck off’, and walked out. The teacher gave me this Benny Hill turn-to-camera look of astonishment, and I don’t think I ever got my game back.

      But it was still a valuable experience, because during the handful of weeks when I believed his story, the notion was forged in my mind that if he could learn to do it, I could learn to do it, and by the time the truth was revealed I’d started putting that into practice. So thanks, Cascade – and thanks, Robert Barron, you fat-faced bowlhead liar.

  5. Jim Reaper says:

    o_O

    Oh god, I spent an awfully long time going round those four bloody houses and I still have no idea whether I was close to finishing the game or not. In fact, I strongly suspected at the time that there was no ending…..it would just go on for eternity….

  6. Cinnamon says:

    A c90 full of spectrum games is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get.

  7. JiminyJickers says:

    Oh yeah, I remember playing this on the C64 I think. I had no idea what it was about but somehow figured out how to play it and enjoyed it anyway. I never finished it, but then I never really finished many games back then.

  8. brulleks says:

    The last screenshot actually made me shudder when I saw it – I spent so long trapped in that maze, that horrible, nonsensical maze.

  9. Kieron Gillen says:

    This was one hell of a game. Totally worth an essay or eight.

    KG

  10. dogsolitude_uk says:

    I bought it off a mate for £3.50 when I was at Middle School. I remember it as a game I could get lost in for hours, but none of my mates would want to play (a bit like Cholo and Mercenary).

    I too spent hours wandering round trying to get the last 2% of pleasure points in the game… Dammit, has anyone ever mapped that maze?

  11. Tony M says:

    Recording a game on an audio cassette tape sounds like fictional Steampunk technology these days.

  12. Ravenger says:

    The C64 version had an amazing soundtrack – some excellent versions of the band’s songs. It added so much to the atmosphere that I wonder about the appeal of the speccy version with its lack of decent sound.

  13. fearghaill says:

    isn’t Paul Dean the one that cooks with horribly unhealthy ingredients?

  14. Radiant says:

    I remember this game.
    I also remember this game as the only game that loaded on my c64 of that particular tape.

    Those C90s contained so much potential joy.
    Dozens of games listed on the inlay [if you were lucky] which may or may not have needed special turbo loaders to work.
    Again if you were lucky you’d get an inlay with the counter numbers you’d have to forward to to get to where the game was recorded.
    Trying to match up counter numbers and messing with the alignment screw to try and align the tape head.

    Just to play some £1.99 mastertronic masterpiece; but yeah Ocean, Ocean and Melbourne House defined my gaming life.

  15. bill says:

    Spectrum was the best PC of all time. These days you’d deserve 1000000 achievement points just for getting the game to actually load.

  16. Navagon says:

    This sounds like the kind of game that needs an HD remake. If done correctly, that is. I played quite a few esoteric C64 games back in the day, but that sounds even more bizarre somehow.

  17. oceanclub says:

    Gosh, brings back memories. I was a huge FGTH fan when I was a teen, even to the extend of – ahem – embroidering their logo on my schoolbag, and “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” being the first non-compilation album I ever bought (back in those days, music wasn’t as easy to come by to a teen with little pocket money!). They’re sometimes dismissed as just a manufactured band but honestly I think there was more to them than that. I had the game but never got that far through it – perhaps a nostalgic play via Spectaculator is due…

    P.

  18. bongosabbath says:

    Thanks for getting THAT song stuck in my head.

  19. viverravid says:

    Why is this article about the totally suboptimal spectrum version and not the clearly superior C64 version?

    EDIT: rhetorical question, but….

    Also, it is totally doable to play the c64 version on your PC and you should. WinVICE is the magic word.

  20. RegisteredUser says:

    There was this C64 game where you walked up to the TV to “crunch” / catch notes in different colours, after which you got an initial song draft. You then kept walking around house/neighbourhood, constantly upgrading the song via minigames. I think in the end you partook in a compeition with your song or something.
    It was mostly awesome because what you did actually changed the song.

    Anyone remember this? I don’t even remember the name, but it seemed like a distant cousin of FGTH in a way.

  21. sinister agent says:

    I remember this one. Still had it until a year ort two ago, too. It was utterly baffling – my whole family cuoldn’t figure out what the hell was going on. So we played it a bit more.

  22. chesh says:

    Holy crap, this sounds amazing. Frankie The Band were, I think, the first music I have a really distinct memory of — my mom tells me I would run around the house singing “Relax” in my pre-kindergarten years.

  23. GallonOfAlan says:

    Played this a lot on the C64, it was ahead of its time in many ways. When I read in Zzap! that the final puzzle involved a knowledge of the multiplication of matrices, I gave up.

  24. phlebas says:

    Mr Straight is the murderer!

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