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Knight Lore

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Knight Lore
Knight Lore cover.jpg
Developer(s) Ultimate Play the Game
Publisher(s) Ultimate Play the Game
Series Sabreman
Engine Filmation
Platform(s) ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro, Amstrad CPC, MSX, Famicom Disk System
Release date(s) November 1984
Genre(s) Action-adventure, isometric platformer
Mode(s) Single-player

Knight Lore is a 1984 action-adventure game by the British company Ultimate Play the Game. It was written by company founders Chris and Tim Stamper and popularised isometric graphics in video games. Although the third game in the Sabreman series, it was the first completed and withheld due to fears that sales of Sabre Wulf would be affected.

The player, as Sabreman, has forty days to collect objects throughout a castle and brew a cure to his werewolf curse. He turns into a werewolf at night, as indicated by an onscreen timer, and returns to human form during the day. Each room is depicted in monochrome on its own screen and consists of blocks to climb and obstacles to avoid while the player solves puzzles and retrieves items for the cure. Knight Lore used an image masking technique that drew and later filled holes in the background, letting Ultimate create composite structures out of stacked images without visual overlap, despite a lack of depth priority in the hardware. The technique was copyrighted by Ultimate as "Filmation", and another game Alien 8 was written before the expected dilution of video game clones based on the technique. Ultimate released Knight Lore in November 1984 for the ZX Spectrum. Ports followed for the BBC Micro, Amstrad CPC, MSX, and Famicom Disk System. The game was later included in compilations including Rare's 2015 Xbox One retrospective compilation, Rare Replay.

Critics praised Knight Lore and were impressed by its isometric 3D style, which they called the first of its kind and a flagship for future games, novel controls and solutions to technical issues such as attribute clash. They liked its atmosphere of mystery, noted its gameplay difficulty, and criticized its sound and occasional graphical slowdown as its weakest elements. Knight Lore was the best-selling game of January 1985 and was named the 1984 game of the year by the Computer and Video Games Golden Joystick Awards and Popular Computing Weekly readers. Retrospective reviewers saw the game as the first to offer a "world" to explore rather than a flat surface, praised its single-screen room setup as a precursor to games like The Legend of Zelda, and found its controls outdated and frustrating in the thirty years since its release. Knight Lore is regarded as a seminal work in British gaming history and though not the first isometric 3D game, it popularised the format. Popular Filmation clones were written by Bo Jangeborg (Fairlight, 1985) and Jon Ritman and Bernie Drummond (Head over Heels, 1987). Ultimate released several more games in its Filmation style before the Stamper brothers left to enter the console market. When the isometric, flick-screen style fell out of fashion, Knight Lore‍‍ '​‍s influence persisted in computer role-playing games. It has also been included in multiple lists of top Spectrum games.


Sabreman atop a stack of bricks in a ZX Spectrum screenshot. Daytime is beginning in the indicator at the bottom right. Knight Lore is depicted in monochrome to avoid attribute clash.[1]

The player, as Sabreman, has been bitten by the Sabre Wulf and now transforms into a werewolf at nightfall.[2] He has forty days to collect items throughout a strange castle and brew a cure for his curse. An onscreen timer shows the progression of day into night, when Sabreman changes to a werewolf, returning to human form at sunrise.[3] Some of the castle's monsters only attack Sabreman when he is a werewolf.[4] The game ends if the player does not finish the cure in forty days.[3] The game's only directions are given through a poem included with the game's cassette tape.[5]

The castle consists of a series of 128 rooms,[6] each displayed on a single, non-scrolling screen.[4] Sabreman must navigate the 3D maze of stone blocks in each room, usually to retrieve a collectible object, whilst avoiding spikes and enemies which kill him on contact. The player begins with four lives, and loses one for each death; running out of lives ends the game. Stone blocks serve as platforms for the player to jump between; some fall under the player's weight, some move of their own accord, and some can be pushed by ghosts.[1] Sabreman jumps higher when in werewolf form, which helps in specific puzzles.[2] The player often needs to move bricks to reach objects out of reach, which may be used to solve puzzles elsewhere.[5] To complete the game, the player must return 14 objects in a specific order from throughout the castle to a cauldron room in its centre staffed by the wizard Melkhior.[6][7] At the end of the game, the player receives a final score based on the remaining time and amount of the quest completed, though the game does not support a leaderboard.[1]


Ultimate Play the Game had finished development on Knight Lore prior to the release of Sabre Wulf in mid-1984, the first game in the Sabreman series.[4][2] The Stamper brothers withheld the game for about a year because they felt Sabre Wulf would not have sold as well after players saw the advancements of Knight Lore. The Stampers also predicted that publishers would attempt to copy Knight Lore‍‍ '​‍s "Filmation" technology and thought they could use the time to finish the rest of Alien 8. Ultimate released Sabre Wulf to commercial and critical success, and released the other two soon after. Tim Stamper added, "We decided that the market wasn't ready for it ... we just had to sit on it because everyone else was so far behind."[8]

In image masking, the developer adds a hole and then fills in its details.

Filmation and Knight Lore‍‍ '​‍s graphical novelty lay in how images were rendered without overlapping. Prior games such as Ultimate's Jetpac used planar sprites with one image sprite atop another,[9] which created graphical errors and portrayed depth incorrectly. Chris Stamper's solution was to use image masking. A mask is a version of an image that defines a background from the subject matter in different colours. When combining the mask and the on-screen composite image, the mask's "background" data was ignored and a hole in the shape of the desired image sprite was added to the background. This was filled in with the sprite's details. Thus, rooms in Knight Lore were drawn one sprite at a time through this masking method. In more recent times, contemporary images render with layer priority set at the individual pixel level.[10] Knight Lore is depicted in a single colour that changes between rooms, so as to avoid attribute clash, a computing limitation wherein one sprite's colour bled into another.[1]

Ultimate released Knight Lore for the ZX Spectrum in November 1984. In a press release, they announced the game as the beginning of a new class of adventure games and "the very pinnacle of software development on the 48K Spectrum".[11] Ultimate did not circulate screenshots of the game in its press materials or cover art.[11] Knight Lore was later released for the BBC Micro, Amstrad CPC, and MSX later in 1985.[12] The Amstrad version upgraded the monochromatic colouring to a two-colour setup[6] while the MSX release was released through Jaleco.[13] Ultimate asked Shahid Ahmad, the Chimera (1985) developer inspired by Knight Lore, to write the Commodore 64 port.[12] In 1986, a version of Knight Lore was released for the Famicom Disk System, but it had little in common with its namesake.[14] The game later appeared in the Spectrum version of the 1986 compilation They Sold a Million II[15] and the 2015 Xbox One compilation of 30 Ultimate and Rare titles, Rare Replay.[16]


Review scores
Publication Score
Amstrad Action Amstrad: 95%[7]
Amtix! Amstrad: 91%[6]
CVG Spectrum: 9/10[5]
Crash Spectrum: 94%[1]
Eurogamer 8/10[4]
Sinclair User Spectrum: 9/10[17]
Your Spectrum Spectrum: 14/15[18]

Computer game magazines lauded Knight Lore,[10] writing that its graphics were the first of its kind and marked a sea change from its contemporaries.[1][5][18][17] Computer & Video Games (CVG) wrote that they had never seen graphics of its calibre and that it lived up to Ultimate's hype. Peter Sweasey of Home Computing Weekly was left speechless and predicted that Knight Lore would change the market. Crash called it the Spectrum's best game and said it was unlikely to be improved.[10] Crash selected Knight Lore as a "Crash Smash" recommendation in its January 1985 issue.[1] Knight Lore was the best selling game in the United Kingdom that month.[10] Popular Computing Weekly readers named Knight Lore their 1984 arcade game and overall game of the year.[19] Knight Lore was also CVG‍‍ '​‍s game of the year at their 1985 Golden Joystick Awards event, and Ultimate was named both developer and programmer of the year.[20]

In 1985, Crash compared the style to the 1984 Avalon but with bolder visuals. They noted how Knight Lore's masking technique addressed issues of flicker and attribute clash, and how the game's novel eight-way direction scheme suited the 3D space. Their reviewer preferred playing as a werewolf and noted the wicked difficulty of some rooms. They appreciated the imaginative mystery of the game as they attempted to answer why Sabreman turns into a werewolf and what the collectible objects throughout the castle do. Crash preferred Knight Lore over Underwurlde, released at the same time, and one reviewer said the former was Ultimate's best game.[1] Sinclair User‍‍ '​‍s Chris Bourne liked how Sabreman disappeared when passing behind blocks. They described Knight Lore‍‍ '​‍s atmosphere as a "crepuscular world of claustrophobic menace" that inspired many curious questions on the part of the adventurer.[17] CVG found the werewolf transformation sequence annoying[5] and Your Spectrum found the game particularly difficult.[18] Reviewers found the game's sound its weakest component.[5][7]

In Amstrad reviews, Amtix noted the colour additions over the monochromatic original and wrote that Knight Lore was among the Amstrad's best adventures. Their one complaint was the graphical slowdown when too many elements were moving onscreen.[6] Amstrad Action also complained of slowdown but called Knight Lore the Amstrad's "first Ultimate blockbuster" (one of the best three games on the console) both an improvement on the Spectrum release and on par with the quality of Commodore 64 titles.[7]

In a retrospective review, Kieron Gillen of Rock, Paper, Shotgun recalled that while isometric games had existed previously, Knight Lore was the first game to offer a "world" with physical depth for exploration as opposed to the simple mechanics of arcade games.[3] Jeremy Signor of USgamer agreed that Knight Lore felt more like a world than a painting and added that the game's innovative use of successive, single-screen rooms ("flip-screen") pre-dated The Legend of Zelda by years.[21] Gillen said the game's punishing style (unforgiving gameplay, high difficulty, awkward controls) had become obsolete in the 30 years since its release and criticised Knight Lore as "enormously innovative, incredibly atmospheric, and totally unplayable", suggesting the similar Head over Heels (1987), had aged much better.[3] Peter Parrish (Eurogamer) too found the game frustrating, though well made.[4] Dan Whitehead of the same publication appreciated that the 2015 Rare Replay compilation emulated Knight Lore in choppy animations similar to how the original ZX Spectrum's processor once struggled to render the onscreen objects.[22]


Knight Lore is widely regarded as a seminal work in British gaming history.[3][11] As an icon of 1980s gaming, Rock, Paper, Shotgun said that Knight Lore was only second to Elite (1984).[3] Retro Gamer wrote that first impressions of Knight Lore were "unforgettable", comparable to the experience of playing Space Harrier (1985), Wolfenstein 3D (1992), and Super Mario 64 (1996) for the first time.[23] Retro Gamer recalled Knight Lore‍‍ '​‍s striking, isometric 3D visuals were both a bold advance in game graphics and a foretelling of their future.[11] Knight Lore was not the first to use isometric graphics—earlier isometric games included Zaxxon (1982), Q*bert (1982), and Ant Attack (1983),[10][21] though it was the game that made it an industry trend with Ultimate and Filmation at its centre.[10][21]

Several video game clones were inspired by Knight Lore. When Edge Games struggled to approximate the isometric style internally, visiting developer Bo Jangeborg devised his own solution, which led to Fairlight (1985), itself regarded as a classic. Edge's version of Filmation received its own branding as "Worldmaker".[24] Shahid Ahmad and Firebird's Chimera (1985) was even closer to Knight Lore. Ahmad's "shock" and "admiration" from playing the precursor both changed his life and convinced him to continue making games. He released Chimera on the Amstrad CPC, Atari, Commodore 64, and ZX Spectrum, customizing each port for the processing limitations of its platform.[25] By 1986, many video game publishers had produced Knight Lore-style isometric games: Sweevo's World, Movie, Quazatron, Get Dexter, Glider Rider, and Molecule Man. Many of these titles suffered the same slowdown issues as Knight Lore due to too much on-screen activity.[12]

Ultimate itself released four additional Filmation games. Alien 8 (1985) was rushed for release before developers had an opportunity to react to Knight Lore, though Retro Gamer said its rush did not show behind a larger game world with more puzzles. Nightshade (1985) added colour and scrolling graphics (in place of flip-screen room changes[12]) with the updated Filmation II, but Retro Gamer said its gameplay was comparatively dull. Gunfright (1986) also used Filmation II, but Retro Gamer reported that it was more robust than Nightshade as the Stamper brothers' last game for Ultimate. Pentagram (1986) returned to a flip-screen rooms and its action-based gameplay included shooting enemies. It sold poorly and was the last Sabreman game.[25] Meanwhile, the Stamper brothers sought to enter the nascent console industry in the wake of rampant computer game piracy in the United Kingdom.[26] They sold Ultimate to U.S. Gold in the mid-80s and began Rare to develop Nintendo console games. Ultimate's last two isometric games were poorly executed, but consumer interest in the genre endured.[13]

The isometric, flip-screen trend continued for several years. Apart from Fairlight, Sweevo's World and Get Dexter, there was the Jon Ritman's Knight Lore-inspired Batman (1986), 1987's Head over Heels, The Last Ninja, La Abadia del Crimen, the 1990 Cadaver and console games Solstice[14] and Landstalker (1992).[21] As players tired of the genre's similar reiterations, Ritman's games, in particular, brought new ideas.[14] Sandy White of the pre-Knight Lore isometric game Ant Attack was impressed at Ultimate's in-game "balance" and gutsy design decisions.[27] The developer of The Great Escape, another isometric game, considered Knight Lore to be more "a rival title than an inspiration", but it still spurred him to spend nine months making Where Time Stood Still.[28] Retro Gamer wrote that Knight Lore‍‍ '​‍s influence persisted 30 years later through titles like Populous (1989), Syndicate (1993), UFO: Enemy Unknown (1994), and Civilization II (1996).[27] The style also spread to computer role-playing games like Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment, Diablo, and Fallout.[21] Vice traced Knight Lore‍‍ '​‍s isometric influence to The Sims 4 and Diablo III.[29] GamesRadar reported in 2009 that isometric perspective was no longer as prominent a topic in game design.[30]

Knight Lore was included in multiple lists of top Spectrum games.[31][32][33] It inspired fangames including Peter Hanratty's 1999 fan sequel[34] and 2010 3D remake of the original, which was in development for four years.[35][3][36]



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