Today’s article is all about a home computer game by Codemasters, where a wide-eyed cartoon character traverses a castle and its environs, collecting items and using said items to solve puzzles while avoiding enemies and doing some light platforming. That’s right, it’s another eggs-cellent adventure in the famous Dizzy series! No, wait… what do you mean this isn’t a Dizzy game? Are you sure? I mean, it sounds a lot like a Dizzy game, is all. Okay, okay, it’s actually Codemasters and Astonishing Animations’ 1990 ZX Spectrum spooks-and-sorcery-em-up Slightly Magic!
Here’s Slightly now, pulling a proto-Dreamworks face while a haunted tree hovers over him menacingly. There’s not much else a haunted tree can do, really. Drop uncanny, blasphemous acorns on your head, perhaps.
Slightly Magic tells the tale of young Slightly, whose uncle Bigwiz is the castle’s chief thaumaturge. Bigwiz dashed out of the castle in a hurry, leaving his laboratory door open, as well as forgetting to take his spellbook and magic wand. Oh, and leaving Slightly behind. Oops. Also, a dragon has kidnapped the princess, so it’s up to Slightly to save her, I guess. The game seems strangely non-committal about the whole princess-rescuing business, as though saving her is little more than a side effect of Slightly messing around with his uncle’s magic spells.
Also, the title “Slightly Magic” is making me think of the Queen songs “A Kind of Magic” and “I’m Going Slightly Mad,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where the game got its name from.
Some brief instructions provide us with an immediate goal: collect the wand and spell book, and then find the spells and the catalysts needed to activate them. After that, you’re on your own, and this is definitely a game that I’ll be playing with a walkthrough at hand because I can guarantee some of the puzzles aren’t going to make any sense.
The action begins in the Wizard’s Laboratory. Young Slightly’s over on the right, colour-clashing with the table. The wand and spellbook are immediately visible but uncollectable for the moment: the wand’s behind a wall, and the book’s too high to jump to. Oh, and the dragon on the left will incinerate Slightly in an agonizing fiery death if you touch it, so I suppose we’ll head to the right.
More dragons await, but also the solution to our first problem. That bucket is full of water, and you can pick it up to add to your inventory. Once in your possession, use it near a dragon to extinguish their flames, allowing you safe passage. There’s one bucket for each dragon, and I played the first area a couple of times before realising I should go back and use this first bucket on the previous dragon, because that gives you a more useful route through the castle. Before I go back, though, check out that portrait above the fireplace. Is… is that the princess I’m supposed to be rescuing? Without wanting to be too cruel, I bet Slightly’s relieved that he’s too young to be granted the princess’ hand in marriage, given that she looks like a cross between the Mona Lisa and the female Gremlin from Gremlins 2.
Before we continue, a quick note to say that the version of Slightly Magic I played was for the more powerful 128K version of the Spectrum. There was also a version for the 48K Spectrum, which is pictured above. The gameplay is the same, but as you can see the 48K version has far fewer graphical elements. This is a mixed blessing – less graphics and thus less colour-clashing makes it a bit easier to read exactly what’s happening on-screen, but it does feel rather dull and empty. The graphics are Slightly Magic’s greatest strength, as you might expect from a developer called Astonishing Animations, and having less of them makes Slightly Magic’s rather threadbare gameplay that bit more obvious. The 128K version also has music, with a single tune playing throughout the game that, as is always the way with such things, starts out jolly but eventually becomes akin to having an angry woodpecker shoved up your nose.
Back to dousing dragons, and while juggling (not literally) buckets of water, the first major issue with Slightly Magic rears its ugly head: you can only carry two items in your inventory. Two! I can understand having a limited inventory to some degree, but only having two item slots reduces much of the game to item management, dropping items and then forgetting where you left them when you actually need them. Is this a limitation of the ZX Spectrum’s memory constraints? Probably, but even having three slots would make the game much more palatable. If I was more cynical, I might suggest that the inventory is deliberately limited to two slots to pad the game out a bit.
My spirits (pun one hundred percent intended) were raised when I descended into the cellar and encountered this fantastic-looking ghost. Tendril-like fingers, a jack-o-lantern face with massive eyes, the overall shape of a plastic bag stuck half-way up a tree: excellent, ten out of ten. However, don’t get so distracted by the ghost that you neglect to pick up the small pile of blue pebbles that Slightly is standing next to. Yes, the pebbles that are almost indistinguishable from the background, those pebbles. Fortunately the limitations of the graphics means that Slightly stands “behind” collectable items, which makes them a bit easier to spot. But why do you need a pocket full of gravel?
So you can feed it to this hungry rock, of course. Skulls, ghosts and now cannibalism. Slightly Magic is delving into some deep horror territory. I say cannibalism, maybe all these rocks are part of the same creature and this is just the head. I suppose that’d mean the rock’s eating parts of his own body. How delightful.
Those are the kinds of puzzles that make up Slightly Magic – the “use a specific item in the right place” kind, with no logic puzzles or maths questions or anything like that. Some of the solutions leap right out at you, like using a pin to pop a bubble blocking Slightly’s path or feeding a rock the equivalent of its own toenail clippings. Other are… less obvious. For example, collecting the pin mentioned above involves standing above it and using a magnet to pull it towards Slightly. The problem with this puzzle is that I had no idea that was a pin. I’m not sure what I thought it was – another, smaller, magic wand, perhaps – but maybe the developers should have made the bubble-popping item a slingshot or something. That’d be a lot easier to parse than a diagonal line of pixels.
Neat dragon, mind you, and I can’t fault Slightly Magic on the presentation front. It might not be the most innovative example of the artform – there are a lot of home computers games from this time involving the wacky antics of big-eyed cartoon characters – but Slightly Magic pulls the aesthetic off well, especially in the extremely British-looking character sprites. If you’d told me that Slightly Magic was based on an obscure character from The Beano, I’d have little difficulty believing you.
Now that I’ve collected the spellbook and the wand, we can explore the other kind of puzzle featured in Slightly Magic. There are spells to collect, and each one requires a certain item – a catalyst, if you like – to work with. The first spell you find is the Fright spell, and that one needs a skull to act as fuel. Makes sense to me, especially given the limited selection of items I’ve picked up so far, and most of the spell combinations are equally obvious. Figuring out where to use the spells? That’s a different story.
Turns out you have to use the Fright spell on these ghosts. I don’t think I can be blamed for having to look this one up in the walkthrough, can I? If there’s any creature (super)naturally impervious to being frightened, you’d think ghosts would be it. It’s like using the “water hose” spell to shift a recalcitrant elephant.
But it works, for some reason, and you spook the spooks. I guess the Fright spell is just a DVD of Ghostbusters.
After a little more castle exploration, including using a hearing spell to get past two deaf guards, Slightly happens upon the colossal head of B-Movie legend Tor Johnson. For a moment, I was transfixed, unable to figure out how to get past this enormous slab of head and captivated by the contrast between the cutesy cartoon moon and the more realistic (albeit seemingly carved from butter) bonce. Turns out you have to use the Flea spell on the head, causing the giant to flick you off his head, over the castle’s moat and into the woods beyond.
Hey, that’s Stonehenge back there. I guess that means Slightly Magic takes place in Wardour Castle. A big thank you to the English Heritage website, there.
The gameplay outside the castle is mostly the same as the gameplay inside, although the screens are laid out a bit more horizontally, so it feels like there’s a bit less exploration.
Here’s Slightly using a pair of scissors to snip off the Cheshire Cat’s dangling thingy. It’s a… pendulum, I guess? Not sure why the Cheshire Cat has a pendulum, although maybe it’s supposed to be a reference to those cat-shaped wall clocks with the moving eyes. And there’s the castle, far off in the distance, the giant having apparently hurled Slightly about six miles through the still night air.
The main goal of this section is to find the Fish spell, which is easier said than done when the ground is littered with deadly banana peels. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before, but I once genuinely saw my friend slip on a banana peel while walking down the street and it might be the funniest thing I’ve ever been privy too. You just can’t beat the classics, can you? I spent the rest of the day looking out for chickens on zebra crossings.
Slightly Magic has a strange set of hazards, actually. They’re split into two categories: ones that drain your magic bar when you touch them (mostly “enemy” creatures like the ghosts) and ones that kill you outright should you bump into them, like the banana peel or the dragons’ fire. There are some issues with this system. There are no audio or visual cues when you’re taking magic damage besides the gauge going down, so it’s easy to lose a bunch of magic without realising. As for the instant death objects, they’re so small and so infrequent that I completely forgot about them most of the time – until the tragicomic moment of banana-related trauma.
Slightly has regressed down the pathways of evolution and become a fish. Yes, I skipped a couple of steps here but not as many as you’d think. The main one was using a watering can on a patch of yellow grass, causing it to turn into fish-friendly water. Yeah, back to the walkthrough for that one, and after a couple of attempts I also slapped on an infinite magic POKE for the underwater area because unless you know the exact route needed to collect the right items and the stars that refill your magic bar, you’ll run out of energy and die. Even if you do run through this section with perfect accuracy, it’s a close run thing.
Excellent octopuses, mind you. They’re getting damned close, visually, to being aliens from the cover of a nineteen-fifties pulp magazine and frankly that’s how octopuses should look.
The whole point of travelling beneath the waves is to find an explosive spell to destroy this rock wall, which would be a simple task if it wasn’t for the limitations of your magic meter. Slightly Magic is definitely a game about rote memorisation, the kind of now-familiar home computer adventure whose difficulty lies in the often obscure relationship between the items you’re holding and the nondescript piece of scenery you’re supposed to be using them on. There’s little to no challenge supplied by Slightly Magic’s platforming elements, that’s for sure. They’re included purely to get our hero from one place to the next, although that is made a bit more difficult by having Slightly refuse to jump upwards if there’s any kind of obstruction anywhere near his oversized noggin.
Again, I can’t fault the presentation. Not when one of the screens if naught but a massive witch flying through the night sky, or at least hovering in place in the night sky. It’s been a long time since Halloween, and this kind of thing helps to keep me going.
Here we see a particularly frustrating example of the deadly banana skins, with this one being almost camouflaged with the background grass. We can also see the witch’s lair, and she’s taken the idea of the gingerbread house to disturbing new levels by using gingerbread people as the very bricks of her dark abode. And she didn’t bake that gingerbread, either…
Inside are Hansel and Gretel, transformed into gingerbread by the witch and thus revealing the horrible truth that the witch’s house is build from mutilated human bodies. Somewhere, Rob Zombie is hurriedly scribbling some production notes for his latest horror remake.
Having acquired the ability to transform into a bird and fly freely through the clouds (for as long as his magic lasts), Slightly can gather the items need to make further progress. These include a spoonful of sugar, stolen from the tip of the witch’s nose, and a dead mouse that you need to feed to some more Cheshire Cats in order to placate them. It’s a lot like the swimming section except, you know, up. The transformation effects are fun and there are a decent amount of them, and I can’t help but think that Slightly Magic would have been more fun if it was entirely about changing into the right shape for the task at hand.
In a display of truly shocking callousness, given their situation, Slightly confronts Hansel and Gretel with a cooking spell. They’re going to be having screaming terrors next time someone pulls out a joint and says “let’s get baked,” never mind when another practitioner of magic waves a cooking spell at them. As it happens, it’s more of an un-cooking spell and the kids are returned to their human forms, free to return to the loving embrace of their family. Oh, right, yeah, the Hansel and Gretel story. Well, I’m sure they’ll be fine in the woods as long as they keep their eyes peeled for banana skins, oh ho ho.
Getting past the kids brings you to the game’s final area, a short underground grotto where you can meet the livid – both in temperament and colour – dragon who is the cause of all this mischief. Except the child-abducting witch, I think she’s out there doing her own thing without any help from the dragon. The princess is right there, waiting patiently to be rescued and perhaps slightly aggrieved that her saviour is not a knight in shining armour but a child in a nighty.
The solution to all your problems is located in an alcove in the cavern wall: a bottle of suntan lotion to soothe the dragon’s sunburn. Except isn’t suntan lotion intended to prevent sunburn in the first place? What this dragon needs is some nice cool aloe vera cream or something. Maybe a big floppy hat for next time.
With the cream liberally applied, the dragon is soothed and Slightly Magic draws to a close. In a nice subversion of the usual expectations, the princess is quick to dismiss the idea of marrying Slightly, presumably because he’s a child. Looking at the princess, Slightly might have dodged a bullet on this one.
And that’s your lot – another quintessentially British ZX Spectrum inventory-management-platformer-thing is over. Don’t worry, it’s not like I’m going to run out, there are thousands of the bloody things. So, how did Slightly Magic score as an example of the genre? It gets a resounding “eh” from me. It’s okay, I suppose. It looks nice, certainly, with lots of charmingly-pixelled creatures and some fun animations like the wobbliness of the ghosts and Slightly’s crouching pose where he folds up into his robes. The gameplay, though: it’s just kinda there, sometimes frustrating with hard-to-decipher puzzles but mostly tootling along at a decent pace. A perfectly average example of the genre, then, although I might be being a bit harsh on it because this isn’t a genre a really enjoy all that much in the first place. And hey, if you’re not convinced by my opinions on things – a perfectly reasonable position to take – then you can check out Slightly Magic for yourself because there’s a “remastered” version available to buy on Steam right now. If you do pick it up I hope you have more fun than I did, and remember: if you are going to have an accident then try to do it by slipping on a banana peel. The world needs laughter, now more than ever.
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