Product: ELECTRON USER 5.08
Publisher: Electron User
Compatibility: BBC B, B+, Master 128 & Acorn Electron
Reviewed by: Dave E
Originally published in EUG #66

Let us pause for a moment and remember some of history's greatest couples. Samson and Delilah. Anthony and Cleopatra. And finally, the Acorn Electron and Electron User. Yes, Database Publications' magazine was the only 100% Elk-committed 'glossy' that there ever was, but my word was it devoted. So devoted, in fact, that the two are almost mutually synonymous; one in three eBay Electron sales features one or more issues of the colourful periodical thrown in on the side.

Was it actually any good, though? Despite our faithful little user group reviewing everything from the Beeb version of Bubble Bobble to the Amstrad PCW16X, it seems Electron User has only been given the passing nod over all these years. We felt it was time to set the record straight so, this issue, we're going to take a look at one of the Electron User magazines, and specifically Volume 5 Number 8.

If we can backtrack on the presumptious pairing off the Elk with only Electron User, the case is that the Elk had partners in a fair few quarters. And, as soon as you open this particular issue, you're faced with one of them. Superior Software, without question the most prolific provider of quality gameware for the Elk, very much dominates the games front, not only buying up three of the 64 A4 pages of the magazine for artwork promoting PLAY IT AGAIN SAM 2, SPYCAT and Quest, but also managing, in the latter, to bag the whole of the front cover.

The delights that await us in EU 5.08, or at least those mentioned on the front cover, are Quest's author "revealling all", a DIY language translator, an alien-zapping keyboard tutor, a "colourful test of alphabetical order" and Pres' AP6 interface on test. In fact, there's a great deal more to be found between the pages, as we'll see. But with a front cover devoted to Quest, a three page feature on Quest, an ad for Quest and a review of Quest, that's over a tenth of the magazine promoting good old Superior. When you add the review of PIAS 2 and the other full-page ads, not to mention the likes of stockists Software Bargains, Mithras Software, 21st Software and the Impact Games club offering both games at bargain basement prices, you get a fair flavour of the Acorn Electron World at this time. That is, "not many new games folks, but we'll damn sure try and promote the ones we have got".

One big nuisance of the issue, besides the all-prevalance of Quest, comes at the very beginning, with the cover of the mag labelled Number Seven in the fifth volume (in a fault which continued for a number of issues before it was corrected). After this, we move on to the 'Electron User News' which "does exactly what it says on the tin". The dull looking black and white news in this particular issue is dwarfed by a large green colourful Acorn on yellow proudly proclaiming the 'Electron & BBC Micro User Show' at the New Horticultural Hall in London, promising a fantastic day for the whole family (Presumably if you bought Quest - Ed).

Take a closer look at this advert though and you realise it's a bit of self-promotion on the part of Database however as it's actually their own show. Similarly, the news column is aptly named 'Electron User News' with the big news story being the success of the previous 'Electron & BBC Micro User Show', complete with pictures of the queue outside. Database also produced its own software for the Electron which, naturally enough, is promoted in six full technicolor pages towards the back of the mag. The rest of the so-called news stories are the usual mix of the Electron helping in education, business and helping a New Zealand kangaroo pass its exams. The most intriguing story concerns MicroLink, a database service precursor to the Internet which had, apparently, been recently updated to include text from The Wall Street Journal. Our own view is the 'EU News' is either a) self-promoting or b) made up. And the 'Gallup Chart', which is meant to list the top ten games for the Electron, is definitely in the (b) category.

Moving on, it will come as no surprise that, like all the 8 bit magazines of the time, the programs supplied with Electron User were in the form of code to type in. There were, and indeed are, companion cassettes and discs, for each of the magazines - and, if you were a subscriber, your magazine arrived bundled with one. However, in another annoyance, the companion cassette to this issue, startlingly, seems to be missing some of the programs so it's still fingers on keys for the two "10 Liners" and "Lucas' Problem". The other games however, are available to download from Acorn Electron World and, we must confess, not bad at all.

The star of the issue is Roland Waddilove's typing tutor, which sounds boring but is in fact a machine code shoot-'em-up game which has aged remarkably well. The idea is that you defend your base at the bottom of the screen. You do this by launching missiles which fly in a vertical straight line. Correspondingly, aliens descend from the top of the screen in vertical straight lines. To hit an alien, you launch a missile by pressing the appropriate letter key which is beneath that alien. The competent player is soon using the keys without needing to take his eyes from the screen, hence familiarising himself with the keyboard, gaining a high score and sending up his wpm if he ever wants to become a secretary.

As Electron User type-ins tend to be head and shoulders above those of some other mags, a certain quality was taken for granted by its readers. Lion's Lair, whilst not as strong as the Typing Tutor, also has an educational bent. It is that "colourful test of alphabetical order" mentioned on the front cover, and which sounds so yawn-worthy. Once again, there are elements of machine code in the listing and it has nice graphics. This is good, because all you are really being asked to do is to sort words into alphabetical order. Unless you're very young, or very thick, you're probably not going to find such a task particularly difficult. (If it had a timer, that would be another question!) However, the game can easily be altered to suit those tricky words your primary school son or daughter may be having trouble spelling or learning so it could be worth a look for parents.

The primitive foreign language translator is a hoot, flanked as it is by a description which reads "past and present tenses will be ignored, and word order may be back to front - la chaise verte will end up as the chair green". Generally this program tends to produce incomprehensible gobbledygook unless you have in fact looked up all the words yourself in a good foreign language dictionary before you start, which sort of defeats the idea of having a program to do it for you. Good for comedy value only. Particularly amusing is the screenshot accompanying the listing which shows a database functioning well with no less than *19* words in memory.

Memory is very much the focus of the one of the several articles in the magazine as one of the 'hottest' upgrades available for the Electron at the time of this magazine's original release was Slogger's Shadow RAM Board (Although was it ever as popular as EU would have us believe? So much optimism haunts their news pages we begin to wonder...). This is, as is frequently the case, an area where Electron User really shines. The manual originally supplied with the addon itself is merely a four page string of new *FX commands with absolutely no insight given as to how you may wish to use them. Here, though, Chris Nixon shows you how to use the lower 12K of bank zero of your new, upgraded Elk, as a massive text storage area. Massive? 12K? Those were the days, eh?

Something you may find interesting is that the demonstration program, accessing as it does the area around Page &00 will, on a standard Electron, print out the information on the chip usually hidden from view, namely the creators of the little beige machine who have hard-coded a message into the 6502 ROM. We will leave it for you to discover...

Chris Nixon's second article is a similarly easy walkthrough of one of the more complex features of Viewsheet; the ability to draw primitive (and these are very primitive - remember Mode 0 does not even allow the use of graphics!) bar charts. The age of Electron User's readership we're not sure of - but one expects it would be gameplayers caring very little, if at all, for the Viewsheet package. The logic of this article eludes us therefore. However, the style is much clearer than that of the Viewsheet User Guide and that, presumably, is why the article made it to publication.

Now, have you ever wondered how programmers squeeze large numbers of rooms, like those in Palace Of Magic, and yes, Quest, into arcade games? Well, in a remarkably simple machine code tutorial, Roland Waddilove sheds a little light on the subject in part four of his programming tutorial.

The final article, part three in a series, introduces some of the very basic mnemoics of machine code along with sample programs that demonstrate them. There's nothing very heavy here which is probably a blessing to those of you who feel reluctant to dabble in assembly language and a curse to those of you who long for code which rivals a commercially published arcade game.

Two of the reviews we've mentioned already. Boulderdash gains the Electron User Golden Game award of the month (What? Not Quest?! - Ed) although it seems to have gained exactly the same marks as PIAS 2, suggesting Golden Game winners were drawn from a hat as opposed to being shiny-button perfect pieces of software. Also reviewed are Phantom Combat Simulator and Skirmish, which are held in high regard by their respective reviewers. The AP6 is also reviewed.

Apart from the articles, several features are 'regulars' such as 'Adventures' (featuring help for Rick Hanson, Enthar Seven, Village Of The Lost Souls and Philosopher's Quest and a map for Twin Kingdom Valley), 'Arcade Corner' (featuring a map for Codename: Droid) and '10 Liners' (featuring a helicopter graphic and a method of generating colour on a black and white television) and there's a bizarre 'Hardware Project' which seems to imagine we all had AP5's and wanted to build our own weather sensors on the weekends. Yeah, right.

The remainder of the magazine features advertisements from all the names we know and love. Slogger and Pres have their regular blue and green (respectively) two page spreads, whilst PMS, Project Expansions, Qualsoft and Peter Donn (of Image fame) have their smaller black and white ads at the back. Also featured, in full colour, is a splendid full-page spread for Icarus by Mandarin.

Electron User retailed at £1.25 at a time when, and this is to show our ages, Smash Hits was 48p, Look-In was 20p and The Beano was 22p. It was, of course, completely independent of Acorn Computers Ltd and, we suspect (mainly from the fact that Roland Waddilove and Chris Nixon seem to be the only two contributors to the whole of this issue), produced by a team of only two to four people. The verdict though is that this issue was worth every penny. The games were good, the right mix between advertisements and features was struck, the advertisers were not conmen, the pages were well laid out and the reviews were fair. Particularly so in Crazee Rider where Nixon remarked: "I could only hit one or two of the other bikes because my acceleration was so lousy compared to everyone else's that I couldn't match speeds with any other riders". Here, hear!

Quite apart from some of the extra information Electron User offers historically now, (the expectations of the market at the time of these games' releases and the article on Quest being two examples) reading one of the old paper issues, especially if you've had a scout around the Acorn Electron web sites becomes particularly interesting. Although we continue to work on it, we cannot yet provide original advertisements and the marketting hype and hyperbole associated with many of the producers of Electron stuff. So, as with the other magazines of the same ilk (A&B Computing and Acorn User being the most popular rivals), opening one really is like stepping back in time. And, if you're still devoted to your Elk now, well into 2006, then this is presumably exactly what you want.