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Retro Corner: 'Back to Skool'

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First Released: ZX Spectrum (1985)
Now Available On: iOS

Retro: Back to Skool
Clive Sinclair's seminal ZX Spectrum celebrated its 30th anniversary this week, so what better way to mark the occasion than revisiting the most influential games from its back catalog?

They didn't come any more high calibre than Back to Skool in the mid-1980s. As one of the first games to pull off life simulation (or at least an aspect of it), David Reidy's take on the education system inspired an entire generation of programmers.

Back to Skool was a sequel to Skool Daze, and essentially a more advanced version of its forebear. Drawing inspiration from his wife's occupation as a teacher, Reidy set out to deliver a parody of school life through the medium of video games.

The end result played like an interactive version of Grange Hill, albeit with fewer colors and a side-on perspective. The player took control of Eric, a rebellious youth with very little going for him where grades were concerned.

Retro: Back to Skool
The object of the game was to plant a forged report card into the headmaster's safe by cracking its combination. Players earned the code's individual digits by completing tasks around the school… but if the core objective grew tiresome, you could always go around punching classmates for the sheer fun of it.

Like Skool Daze before it, Back to Skool contained most of the hallmarks of a typical school day. You could attend lessons, get into playground scraps, write on blackboards, and be collared by overbearing teachers eager to dish out lines. In an age where simply making spirits run and jump was a challenge, there was an impressive amount of environmental interactivity on offer here.

Eric could ride bikes, use basic weapons such as slingshots and stink bombs, and even intoxicate bothersome teachers by spiking their cups with sherry. The non-playable characters were transparent sprites that took on the color of their background, but they were loaded with personality.

Miss Take, the headmistress, ruled with an iron fist, and Albert the caretaker served as an eagle-eyed watchman preventing you from leaving the school grounds. One of Back to Skool's new features was the addition of a girls' school next door, giving players plenty of incentive to give Albert the slip.

Retro: Back to Skool
This created new gameplay opportunities. Players could release mice into the girls' school to cause widespread chaos, or palm off their lines on Eric's girlfriend Hayley by buttering her up with a kiss, although she grew tired of this by the sixth attempt.

The most common way players lost the game was by incurring too many lines, but it wasn't the only route to that game over screen. In what seems like a dark twist, it was actually possible to commit suicide by leaping out of the second floor window.

When this happened, one of the teachers stood over your incapacitated form and said: "You are not a bird, Eric. You're expelled," although surely expulsion was the least of Eric's worries at that particular time.

Like many great Spectrum games, Back to Skool had some interesting bugs and glitches. One enabled players to view what was going on inside the neighbouring girls' school without setting foot in there, and another caused those bothersome teachers to disappear; so they were both amusing and functional.

Retro: Back to Skool
In closing, Back to Skool was something of an oddball release, yet a classic in its own right. Reidy's masterpiece was far ahead of its time when you consider the amount of games that have attempted to simulate aspects of real life since. Almost three decades down the line, it might not look like much, but those who give it a try might just be surprised.

> ZX Spectrum vs Commodore 64: Gaming's Greatest Rivalry
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Do you have any fond memories of Back to Skool? Post a comment below.

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