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Sabre Wulf

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This article is about the 1984 video game. For the Game Boy Advance game, see Sabre Wulf (2004 video game). For the Killer Instinct character, see List of Killer Instinct characters.
Sabre Wulf
A plain, vertical cover with "Sabre Wulf" in stylized, purple, scripted lettering in gold outline, and the Ultimate Play the Game logo beneath it. The background is a gradient from black to light green.
Developer(s) Ultimate Play the Game
Publisher(s) Ultimate Play the Game
Series Sabreman
Platform(s) ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC
Release date(s) 1984
Genre(s) Action-adventure
Mode(s) Single-player

Sabre Wulf is a 1984 action-adventure game by Ultimate Play the Game in which the player navigates the pith-helmeted Sabreman through a 2D jungle maze while collecting amulet pieces to bypass the guardian at its exit. The player does not receive explicit guidance on how to play and is left to decipher the game's objectives through trial and error. Sabreman moves between the maze's 256 connected screens by touching the border where one screen ends and another begins. Each screen is filled with colourful flora, enemies that spawn at random, and occasional collectibles.

Ultimate released the game for the ZX Spectrum home computer in 1984 at an above-average price to combat piracy. Its premium product packaging became a company standard. The developers had finished Sabre Wulf's sequels in advance of its release but—in-keeping with their penchant for secrecy—chose to withhold them for marketing purposes. The sequels were swiftly released later that year. Ultimate hired outside developers to port Sabre Wulf for other computing platforms: the BBC Micro, Commodore 64, and Amstrad CPC. The game was later featured in compilations including the 2015 retrospective of games by Ultimate and its successor, Rare.

Several gaming publications recommended the game, and Crash magazine readers named it the "Best Maze Game" of 1984. Sabre Wulf was a bestseller and a financial success. Though its labyrinthine gameplay was similar to that of Ultimate's previous release, reviewers preferred Sabre Wulf. They additionally noted its difficult gameplay and lauded its graphics. Games journalists remember Sabre Wulf among the Spectrum's best games, and for starting the Sabreman series.


Atop a black background, dense and bright plant foliage mark borders around two horizontal paths. In the top path, drawn in black (negative) space, a blue, pixel art wolf faces a pith-helmeted person drawn in white (Sabreman). In the bottom row, a yellow spider, approaches a blob of graphical collisions. Bordering the bottom of the screenshot are purple and white mountains, and atop the screen are "1UP", "2UP", and "HI" with numbers indicating the players' and high scores.
Sabreman (top right) faces the Wulf in his path (top left) in one of the 256 screens that compose Sabre Wulf's maze. An enemy spider shows in the lower path.

In Sabre Wulf, the player navigates the pith-helmeted adventurer Sabreman through a two-dimensional maze.[1] The player must reconstruct an amulet from its four pieces scattered throughout the maze to bypass the guardian at its exit,[2][3] a cave that leads to the game's sequel, Underwurlde.[4] The maze is presented in flip-screens[5] such that player views one static tile of the maze's grid at a time. For example, when Sabreman reaches the left edge of one screen, he continues the maze at the right edge of the next screen.[5]

The game opens to music composed by Bach.[6] Its tiled maze contains 256 screens[1] and is drawn in a 16 by 16 grid.[4] Its paths bordered by tropical flora,[7] populated with attacking enemies and, on its outskirts, surrounded by mountains.[8] Apart from the jungle, the game's maze also includes several lakes.[8] The player swings Sabreman's sabre[4] with the push of the joystick's fire button[5] to defeat enemies that spawn in random on-screen locations.[4] When the player idles too long in the same screen, an indestructible bushfire appears to pursue Sabreman.[1][9] Enemies include spiders, scorpions, snakes, bats,[5] indigenous people, sleeping hippos, and a fast wolf (the titular Sabre Wulf[1]).[8] Some enemies flee when hit, while the wolf, cave guardian and bushfire are unaffected by the sabre.[4]

The player does not receive any explicit guidance on how to play and is left to decipher the game's objectives through trial and error.[10] Sabre Wulf's graphics fill the full screen with no interface, inventory, or damage indicators apart from a high score meter in the top centre.[1] Sabreman can eat orchid power-ups, which bloom for only a few seconds, to turn the colour of the orchid and receive a temporary character effect. Some effects empower (e.g. invulnerability, increased speed) while others impair (e.g. reversed controls). Sabreman also collects treasure and extra lives scattered throughout the maze.[7] The Spectrum and Commodore 64 releases include a two-player mode in which players take turns controlling their own Sabreman.[1]


A black, rectangular box with rounded sides. A top panel reads, in raised lettering and a robotic typeface, "sinclair", and below that, in modern, white lettering, "ZX Spectrum". A full QWERTY keyboard with Chiclet buttons, full number set, and buttons for Enter, Caps Shift, and Space. Each of the buttons has alternative text in green and red lettering nearby, to access other functions when the corresponding modifier key is pressed. A red, yellow, green, blue rainbow streak shows in the right corner, but rest of the machine is black.
ZX Spectrum

The developer of Sabre Wulf, Ultimate Play the Game, had a reputation for secrecy. The company was disconnected from other developers and rarely gave interviews or revealed details about their internal practices or upcoming games.[11][12] Little is known about their development process apart from that they used Sage IV computers,[12] preferred to develop for the ZX Spectrum's Z80 microprocessor, and often outsourced development for other platforms, such as those that ran 6502 microprocessors.[13] After releasing Atic Atac at the end of 1983, Ultimate went silent until it ran teaser advertisements for Sabre Wulf in April 1984.[12] (The company rarely depicted actual gameplay in their advertisements.[14]) They had already prepared Knight Lore, the third game in the Sabreman series, in advance of the character's introduction in Sabre Wulf. Ultimate withheld Knight Lore for about a year because they felt Sabre Wulf would not have sold as well once players saw the former's graphical advancements.[15] (Knight Lore became known as a seminal work in British gaming history and an iconic game of the 1980s for its popularization of the isometric platformer format.[16])

Ultimate released Sabre Wulf for the ZX Spectrum in 1984[1] and the other Sabreman titles both released later that year.[17] Sabre Wulf was Ultimate's first game to use what would become the company's standard price and mysterious, unadorned packaging. Retailing at £9.95, Ultimate nearly doubled its usual price in what they saw as a "bold step" to combat piracy. They expected legal owners to be more protective over letting friends copy their more expensive games. Ultimate had seen competitor prices slowly increasing and felt that their full price was fair for their time invested.[1] The game retailed in a high-quality, big cardboard box with a glossy instruction manual, which were both upgrades over regular game packaging. It became Ultimate's standard packaging for new games.[12] The company's game packaging was nondescript and showed no screenshots of the in-game world.[14] Ultimate's games also did not display internal credits.[18] The company hired outside developers to complete Sabre Wulf ports for other computers. Paul Proctor wrote the BBC Micro conversion,[13] and in 1985, Greg Duddle wrote the Commodore 64 conversion, which was licensed under Firebird.[19] Sabre Wulf later appeared in the 1985 compilation They Sold a Million, a collection of Spectrum games that had together sold a million units.[20][21] When the compilation was released for the Amstrad CPC, Sabre Wulf was converted for the platform and eventually released in a standalone edition. Sabre Wulf also appeared alongside Underwurlde, its sequel, in a Commodore 64 pack,[19] and in the August 2015 Xbox One compilation of 30 Ultimate and Rare titles, Rare Replay.[22]


Review scores
Publication Score
CVG 36/40[5][23]
Crash 91%[4]
Sinclair User 8/10[24]
Personal Computer Games 10/10[7]
ZX Computing 5/5 stars[25]

Reviewers appreciated the game's graphics and found its gameplay similar to Ultimate's previous game, Atic Atac[5][15][26][24][25][27]—particularly in its opening sequence[5][7] and maze format[8][15]—though reviewers preferred Sabre Wulf.[7][26] Critics also noted the game's difficulty[5][28] and above-average pricing.[5][8][24][27][28] Sabre Wulf was a selected recommendation in Crash (July 1984),[10] Personal Computer Games (August 1984),[7] and Popular Computing Weekly (June 1984).[28] The game was named "Best Maze Game" in the 1984 Crash Readers Awards.[27] Sabre Wulf topped the sales chart in the video game format.[12] Retro Gamer reported that Ultimate's new pricing strategy was a success and that Sabre Wulf broke the company's sales records,[1] though Computer and Video Games (CVG) reported in December 1984 that Sabre Wulf had sold only 30,000 copies—fewer than the company's prior games.[29] Eurogamer reported that 350,000 units were sold in total.[6]

Crash confirmed rumours that the game was similar to Atic Atac, but declared Sabre Wulf the better of the two, and predicted that they would have similar legacies.[26] The magazine wrote that their inability to intuit Sabreman's current inventory or resistance to damage added to the game's mystique, and that Ultimate was particularly skilled at not giving hints but leaving sufficient clues through the game's design.[10] Personal Computer Games found one such tip: that the indigenous enemies make a sound when aligned with an amulet piece.[7] In a similar experience, Popular Computing Weekly slowly learned to use rather than avoid the orchids.[28] CVG described the game's instructions as "cryptic".[5] Crash later reflected that comparisons to Atic Atac at its launch were unfair, similar to calling any two text adventures identical.[4]

Critics had high praise for the colourful and detailed graphics and animations.[8][5] In the opinion of CVG reviewers, Sabre Wulf carried Ultimate's momentum from Jetpac and Atic Atac, and had the best graphics of any ZX Spectrum game, with graphical detail that surpassed what previous reviewers considered the computer's limits.[5] Sinclair User liked, in particular, how the hippo enemies forced the player to vary their hack-and-slash gameplay style.[24] A Crash reviewer called the game "a Software Masterpiece".[8] The magazine received more mail in praise of Sabre Wulf in 1984 than for any other game[27] and, a year later, repeated that Sabre Wulf was among the top games available for the Spectrum, adding that the game did not feel antiquated.[4] CVG's Commodore 64 review, two years after the original release, approved of the port and said that the game remained a classic.[23]

Reviewers complained of the game's high price, which was nearly double the average.[8][24] Crash predicted that the cost may lead to more piracy.[8] Critics also noted a bug in two-player mode,[8] repeat screens from elsewhere in the maze,[7] and the frustratingly narrow window in which sabre swings register as enemy hits.[5] CVG recommended drawing a map of the maze, without which it was easy to get lost.[23] While Sabre Wulf had some flicker issues, said Sinclair User, the game altogether met Ultimate's high quality benchmarks.[24]

A retrospective review from Retro Gamer reduced Sabre Wulf to "an interactive maze" packed with colour and hack-and-slash gameplay.[1] The magazine likened the game's colour choice and setting to what the magazine considered Ultimate's best arcade game, Dingo (1983), and lamented Sabreman's inability to hit enemies above or below him.[30] Eurogamer's Peter Parrish retrospectively found the game's collision detection imprecise as well.[6] In The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, Simon Niedenthal used Sabre Wulf as an example of games that maximised the limited colour palette of 8-bit computers. He described its colours as pure, with a glow like stained glass and a strong figure–ground contrast against the Spectrum's black background.[31]


The Spectrum release was included in multiple lists of top games for the platform,[32][33] "much-beloved" among Spectrum players.[6] Sabre Wulf was the first of four titles in the Sabreman series for the ZX Spectrum.[1] Retro Gamer credited the Sabreman character as memorable both in name and appearance as an archetypal "8-bit hero": an ordinary human with a hat and exaggerated nose.[15] The last, unreleased game in the Spectrum Sabreman series, Mire Mare, was planned to have been similar to Sabre Wulf in gameplay.[34] Rare, the successor to Ultimate, later released the side-scrolling platformer Sabre Wulf for the Game Boy Advance in 2004, in which Sabreman enlists jungle animals to solve the Sabre Wulf's puzzles. It was not received well by fans.[35] Elements from the original Sabre Wulf appear in other games, including Rare's Jet Force Gemini.[36] Retro Gamer considered Sabreman's recurrence to be proof of Rare's interest in the character and series.[37]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Hunt 2010, p. 27.
  2. ^ a b Crash 1984, pp. 62–3.
  3. ^ This ACG Amulet[2] is named for Ashby Computers & Graphics, the developer's former name.[1]
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Crash 1985b.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Computer and Video Games 1984a.
  6. ^ a b c d Parrish 2007.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Anderson 1984.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Crash 1984, p. 62.
  9. ^ Holman 1984, p. 39.
  10. ^ a b c Crash 1984, p. 63.
  11. ^ Kean 1988, p. 35.
  12. ^ a b c d e Carroll 2012, p. 24.
  13. ^ a b Carroll 2012, p. 25.
  14. ^ a b Carroll 2014, p. 21.
  15. ^ a b c d Hunt 2010, p. 28.
  16. ^ Gillen 2010.
  17. ^ Hunt 2010, p. 28–29.
  18. ^ Carroll 2012, p. 22.
  19. ^ a b Carroll 2012, p. 27.
  20. ^ Computer and Video Games 1985.
  21. ^ Computer Gamer 1985.
  22. ^ McWhertor 2015.
  23. ^ a b c Computer and Video Games 1986.
  24. ^ a b c d e f Sinclair User 1984.
  25. ^ a b Watson 1984.
  26. ^ a b c Crash 1984, pp. 62–63.
  27. ^ a b c d Crash 1985a.
  28. ^ a b c d Popular Computing Weekly 1984.
  29. ^ Computer and Video Games 1984b.
  30. ^ Hunt 2010, p. 25.
  31. ^ Niedenthal 2013, p. 68.
  32. ^ Your Sinclair 1993, p. 11.
  33. ^ Whitehead 2004.
  34. ^ Hunt 2010, p. 30.
  35. ^ Hunt 2010, pp. 30–31.
  36. ^ Hunt 2010, p. 26.
  37. ^ Hunt 2010, p. 31.


  • Carroll, Martyn (November 2012). "The Ultimate Years". Retro Gamer (109): 22–31. 
  • Carroll, Martyn (March 2014). "Knight Lore: A 30-Year Legacy". Retro Gamer (126): 20–27. 
  • Hunt, Stuart (February 2010). "The Ultimate Hero: A Complete History of Sabreman". Retro Gamer (73): 24–31. 
  • Holman, Ross (August 1984). "Cry of the WULF". Your Spectrum. Sportscene Specialist Press Ltd (6): 36–39. staying in one room for too long causes an indestructible flame to start licking at your boots 

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