When people mention the Magic Knight games on the Spectrum and other 8-bit platforms, the first one Finders Keepers isn’t really what they’re thinking of. It’s very much an outlier, playing completely differently to the other three, which all run on more or less the same engine. Despite that it does share a lead character as well as many items, gameplay elements and quirks of humour. As one might expect the games all have the same coder, David Jones.
Finders Keepers on the ZX Spectrum (48K only) is a fun, interesting single-player game that’s very of its time. Originally released as a £1.99 budget title in 1985, I came to it (and two of the subsequent Magic Knight games) through the twin magics of magazine covertapes and back issue orders. Finders Keepers, along with the 48K versions of Spellbound and Knight Tyme were given away free on Sinclair User magazine in 1988, that’s fewer than three years after release.
The backstory for the game is the bare minimum to establish a straightforward loot-snaffling dungeon crawl. Later Magic Knight games would develop different situations and central characters as he would begin each upon transported to a new place/tyme [sic].
Lots of bright, single-coloured 16×16 sprites, less chunky than those in Super Mario Bros, say. This means there’s no colour clash (a hardware limitation on the Spectrum, where only two colours are possible per 8×8 block, causing close or overlapping graphics to take on the other’s colour). No sprite flicker either, Magic Knight and his foes feel pleasingly solid. The exception to the two previous claims being when you come into contact with an enemy, when the flickering is paired with a simple sound effect to indicate energy loss.
Other sound is limited to simple effects for menus, object interactions, etc. There’s no music of any kind in the game either.
Controls are redefinable or there’s a selection of four joystick interfaces supported.
COMPUTER, WHAT IS THE NATURE OF THE UNIVERSE?
The castle setting is comprised of sets of 3 or 4 fancifully-named platform screens which have gravity, linked by two larger scrolling top-down mazes which don’t. Despite the transition graphics are shared across the two “modes” and the mazes play similarly to the platform sections in terms of menus, items and foes. You do get the excitement of seeing Magic Knight from one new angle.
Gameplay is exploration-based, with Magic Knight needing to search out both the most valuable items and those which will help him on his quest. You can carry up to five items and certain ones will react with each other when handled or placed together, usually producing a new, more valuable item.
The items all have a cash value and are scattered about the castle. Depicted identically as little Chuckie Egg triangles, they can and should be examined before picking up as some are red herrings or better left untouched.
As you explore the castle each ROOM counts for 4% towards a fully explored castle. An odd little bug has this figure max out at 88%. Either the Spectrum version lacks three rooms the others had or perhaps the mazes were meant to count for 6% each? I might do some digging to find out.
Your apparently-ghostly foes are animated 16×16 sprites of octopodes, axes and munching faces similar to the sort of thing seen in games like Atic Atac or Jet Set Willy. They ignore MK, instead moving in a fixed pattern and must be avoided lest you lose strength (read: energy). Enough strength lost and MK loses one of his four lives. Neither lives nor strength can be restored in any way, but with experience the game is completable for an average player in one session (first-timers and the casually-interested should see the Suggested POKEs below).
However MK earned his spurs it probably wasn’t on the field of battle, as he has no offensive options. Monsters can be simply run under or jumped over on platforming screens, however avoiding enemies in the mazes is more challenging.
WHITE KNIGHTS CAN’T JUMP
The Slimey Lower Maze and The Cold Upper Maze run at a noticeably slower speed than the rooms do. As these top-down scrolling mazes span the area of many screens it’s impossible to know without practice where you are headed, where items are and worst of all, what fixed path the monsters are patrolling.
MK and the monsters travel at the same speed in the maze so on sighting one in front of you, you need to immediately backtrack and dive into an alcove or side-tunnel to avoid losing energy. The “Nope!” moment when this occurs is great and reminiscent of running from the Sidhe or pickpockets in Tir Na Nog/Dun Darach respectively. At least your money and items are safe in Finders Keepers!
HE’S LOST CONTROL
Frustrations? The jumps really do have to be pixel perfect lest you bang into a platform above or in front. Missing a jump usually only results in falling straight down no further than the bottom of the current room, likely making contact with enemies in the process. At least it doesn’t necessitate too much backtracking.
The item handling/menu system is idiosyncratic to say the least. Uncommonly for games of this era you need four “Fire” buttons: Get, Examine, Trade and Drop/List. Acquiring an item by Get or Trade leaves you on the Drop/List screen which can sometimes end up with you dropping an item. Accidentally picking up an item you wanted to examine is entirely possible if you’ve confused yourself by redefined the keys or are using a joypad. Default keys are sane, set to the first letter of the action in question, but using a separate button for Trade instead of simply detecting when MK is in front of the trader is daft.
Examine also only shows you what an object is, not how much it’s worth making its usefulness limited to identifying stuff you don’t want right now.
Interacting with items on the ground oddly relies on them being in contact with MK’s right foot (left onscreen), so occasionally you find yourself shuffling left or right to pick something up quickly before a monster comes back. That’s usually when I end up forgetting to examine first and regretting it later.
This leads me to the one real swine that the game has which is occasional undroppable objects. I can see the logic of these for replayability purposes (“I’ll leave that alone next time, then I can carry the dragon egg too!”) but inadvertently picking one up does make the series of fetch/carry quests you set out upon a lot more awkward. Emulatorists might want to keep a save state handy (and hardly need me telling them that).
WHERE’S THE GAME?
The game is in figuring out how to escape the early rooms, then to move freely through the entire castle. In building a familiarity with the mazes, including the tantalising unreachable sections (who doesn’t love just-in-view, just-out-of-reach level design?). In deciding which objects are most valuable to sell and to which trader you’ll do so on this playthrough. In figuring out what needs to be done to escape (there are no explicit clues, other than an EXIT sign). In developing the skills to do several “laps” of the castle without dying.
It’s a shame that there’s no randomisation used anywhere as having the objects in different places every time would make for a fun, although differently-structured experience.
The game’s “ending” is a simple, final non-game-terminating screen, allowing for a dedicated player to re-enter the castle and attempt to maximise their CASH and OBJECTS scores for their own satisfaction. Echoes of Adventure/Colossal Cave as much as more modern games which allow for continued play post-plot e.g. Fallout 3.
HOW DO YOU FIND?
In conclusion Finders Keepers is a great little game, beatable with perseverance, and requires the overlooking of fewer flaws than many of its contemporaries. Someone looking for a Jet Set Willy or Spooked platform exploration game will find it a bit claustrophobic, others hoping for a Dizzy or Knight Tyme style arcade adventure will find it absent the puzzles and character interaction that distinguish those games. Anyone approaching the game from a position of complete unfamiliarity with the Spectrum is likely to be drawn in by the graphics and put off by the warts of the menu interface. It’s not hard to imagine David Jones‘ own dissatisfaction with the menuing is what led to subsequent Magic Knight games “Windimation” system.
Recommended for anyone interested.
LINKS FROM THE PAST
Here’s a good (shorter!) contemporary review from Crash magazine. A few interesting observations, plus the metrics by which the game is measured read as adorably quaint now:
This “8-Bit Battles” video gives a glimpse of all the different versions:
Watch the game being completed:
34252, 0 Infinite Lives
You’ll get freedom to explore platform screens at the expense of the fun running from the monsters in the mazes. Pretend they can still hurt you and give that a go anyway for an authentic Finders Keepers experience!