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.