The Great Space Race | One of gaming’s most infamous early flops, 40 years on

the great space race
Share this Article:

Forget E.T. on the Atari 2600: for British computer owners, The Great Space Race was one of the 1980s’ most over-hyped commercial disasters. We take a look back.

By the middle of the 1980s, British computer owners were ready for something different. And in a market awash with similar-looking clones of old arcade games like Space Invaders, Galaxian or Pac-Man, The Great Space sounded like a glimpse of the future.

At a time when games were typically developed in a matter of months for little outlay, the interactive space opera was “a year in the making” and had a reported budget of £250,000 – a huge sum for the time. In a Home Computing Weekly news piece published in August 1984, a few months before The Great Space’s release, it was said that developer Legend “has parted with what is believed to be the largest sum of money ever spent on the production of a single game.”

Where was all that money going? According to Legend co-founder John Peel, his game was going to offer a massive leap in what was considered possible on the 8-bit computers of the day.

“Legend’s John Peel says it’ll be the first game with true, solid 3D characters and the first with full facial animation,” a preview in Personal Computer Games magazine read. “The latter comes into effect when other characters are speaking to you. Their faces appear on screen in close-up and are supposed to smile or frown depending on what you say.”

The Great Space Race was going to be nothing less than a “computer movie” full of “strategy, adventure and arcade combat elements”.

Ads like these were a common sight in UK magazines in the autumn of 1984. Note the lack of screenshots or… much of anything, really. Credit:

It sounded extraordinary, but then, 1984 also saw the release of Elite – Ian Bell and David Braben’s space trading sim, which pushed technological boundaries with its 3D graphics and hundreds of procedurally-generated planets. Perhaps it really was possible that the game’s developer, Legend, had found a new way to extend the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 beyond their respective limits.

Legend wasn’t some unknown developer, either; it had already made the acclaimed adventure, Valhalla, which used a game engine called Movisoft to render its 2D world and characters. The studio had poured about £70,000 into making that game in 1982, according to Peel, but the game was such a success – selling a reported 150,000 copies – that he and his wife Jan, who’d co-founded the studio a couple of years earlier, could afford to swap their old red Mini for a black Porsche.

The success of Valhalla also gave Legend the leeway to sink an even greater sum into The Great Space Race. There were scurrilous rumours, published in Sinclair User magazine, that Peel had hired a fancy mansion in the countryside where he and his team of programmers could get on with development.

As magazines filled up with double-page adverts for the game, anticipation grew to such heights that retailers were demanding to know when copies of The Great Space Race were going to be available to put on their shelves. Distributors, in turn, were pre-ordering copies without even having seen the game up and running – a business decision they’d soon come to regret.

For younger readers: yes, this looked pretty bad, even by 1984 standards.

After several delays, The Great Space Race finally emerged in December 1984 – just in time to take advantage of the lucrative Christmas market. Housed in an outsized box vaguely akin to the cases rental VHS tapes were packaged in at the time, the game came with a poster and a 56-page illustrated book designed to expand on its sci-fi lore.

The problem came when players took the audio tape out of the box and loaded it into their computers. Far from the boundary-pushing 3D, interactive movie promised, it instead turned out to be a simplistic space adventure that required little input from the player – in fact, if left alone, the game would famously play itself.

Not that all the claims made about The Great Space Race were false: at the very least, it did indeed feature large (for the time), animated portraits of its characters, albeit not in 3D nor as expressive as previously billed. The game was also a space trading game, much like Elite – though ultimately, Legend’s game could only suffer in comparison to Braben and Bell’s technical marvel.

The Great Space Race involved shifting quantities of exotic alcohol (called Natof) from one side of the galaxy to the other, with the game beginning by asking the player to choose four pilots, and then what weapons to install on their ships. Those weapons would come in handy during the jaunts across the galaxy because, like Elite before it, pirate attacks were common. But where Elite depicted real-time space battles with 3D wireframe graphics and lots of lasers, The Great Space Race’s skirmishes saw tiny 2D sprites jerk and flicker around the screen. Worse, the player had no direct control over them.

Reviews of The Great Space were, to put it mildly, derisive. “The two ships on the screen look like two mis-shaped fried eggs sliding around in a pan,” Sinclair User wrote. Several outlets noted that the game was written in BASIC – the ZX Spectrum’s built-in programming language – and questioned whether such a simplistic game was worth its then-high £14.99 price tag.

The Great Space Race’s facial animation was more minimal than billed, but it did exist, unlike some of the other elements claimed to be in the game.

Those distributors who’d enthusiastically pre-ordered copies of the game, sight unseen? They were less than impressed.

“It hasn’t sold,” a distributor named Loretta Cohen told Sinclair User in April 1985. “We won’t ever [again] take on a game without first seeing it.”

As word of the game’s unexpectedly dismal quality spread, Legend was forced to respond to the growing complaints from those who’d bought it. By August 1985, the company had announced a new offer: if unhappy customers sent their unwanted copy of The Great Space back to Legend, as well as a cheque for £4.95, they’d get a half-price tape of its more recent space shooter, Komplex.

As Legend went on a damage limitation campaign, Sinclair User journalist Bill Scolding was invited to visit the studio’s headquarters, and was surprised to discover that the developer was housed not in a luxurious mansion, but a former building society’s office hidden behind an unmarked door in Chingford.

At the top of a “creaky staircase”, and in the midst of a thunderstorm, Scolding met studio co-founder John Peel – a chain-smoking “dedicated eccentric” with large glasses and a fluffy beard. Right away, Peel expressed his annoyance at Sinclair User’s earlier suggestion that he’d hired out a country mansion, which he said was “totally untrue.”

Legend co-founders Jan (left) and John Peel (right), as published in Sinclair User in August 1985. Credit:

Peel also said that his company had lost over £200,000 on The Great Space Race, and heavily implied that the programmers who’d made it had been fired. Ushering Scolding to the office’s top floor, Peel introduced his team of programmers, curiously nicknamed the Perverts and Pillocks Club. There, Peel held up a box of ZX Microdrives (a notoriously unreliable storage medium created by Sinclair Research), saying, “That’s how professional they were – they were using Microdrives.”

One of his current employees also referred to the programmers of The Great Space Race in the past tense. “From what I’ve seen the programmers weren’t up to it,” said Colin Foster, a member of the aforementioned Perverts and Pillocks Club.

Brilliantly, Scolding had the presence of mind to address another elephant in the room: had John Peel ever been muddled up with his namesake, the celebrated BBC Radio DJ? This prompted an anecdote from Peel about the time a magazine came up with the idea that he and the DJ should meet for a novelty article of some sort.

“I met the guy,” said the less famous Peel, “didn’t get on with him, so we got drunk instead. By the time the photographer arrived we were plastered. Worst photographs ever taken.”

As Scolding and Peel talked, the club of pillocks were busily programming a new game – Komplex City, another 3D space shooter with some big ideas behind it. “In a sense, Komplex City should have been released first,” Peel said, before launching into some impressive-sounding stats. “Each map has a 12-character name, and as there are 37 possible characters, there are 6,500,000,000,000,000,000 maps which can be generated.”

If you’re having trouble counting all those zeroes, that number equates to six quadrillion five hundred million.

History doesn’t record why Legend called its programming team the ‘Perverts and Pillocks Club’. Probably best not to know. That’s Peel on the right there. Credit:

Perhaps due to its tarnished reputation, Legend never got a chance to release Komplex City. The game was finished, with Sinclair User giving it a glowing score of five out of five and praising its 3D wireframe graphics and trillions of possible mazes. “Legend has clearly put a lot more care into Komplex City than into recent products, and that attention to detail has paid off,” critic Chris Bourne wrote in October 1985. “You probably won’t want another shoot-’em-up this side of Christmas.”

Although it’s difficult to pin down an exact date when Legend closed down, it seems that the company breathed its last in the latter months of 1985 – one year after The Great Space’s release. The studio’s overhyped sci-fi adventure coincided with a torturous moment in the UK’s early games industry: the sheer number of games released in any given month saw multiple software houses go bust towards the middle of the decade.

In another Sinclair User report published at the time, it was reckoned that one distributor had received 400 games to evaluate in the run-up to Christmas 1984, and could only choose 50 to sell on to retailers. It was “a frightening waste of time and effort on the part of the software houses,” the report concluded.

The games industry has grown exponentially in the 40 years since The Great Space Race, and the figures it bandied about – £250,000 budget! A year in the making! – now seem almost comically piffling. But one parallel between 1984 and 2024 is the sheer over-saturation we’re seeing in the gaming market; it’s reckoned that a staggering 14,532 games were released on Steam last year alone.

As a result, perhaps it’s unsurprising that some developers try to cut through all that competition by promising the moon. Zombie survival shooter The Day Before had all kinds of extraordinary claims made about it during its development, only for the resulting game to be so horrifically received that it was swiftly withdrawn mere weeks after its release.

Much has changed since 1984, but the cycle of hype is one element that remains strikingly similar.

Share this Article:

More like this