Remember those miserable times when, as a small child, one had to suffer long school hours without nary a videogame in sight to pass the time? What better friend in misery than the thought of a computer/console waiting at home, ready to be fired up with that awesome looking game you bought yesterday and barely had time to mess around with? But what if, once you went home, you could also vent your frustrations and make fun of all the teachers you hated at school, along with the bully and the nerd?
That was the main reason Skool Daze was among my favourite title when I returned home from school. Even though I realized, years later, it was a simple BASIC feature, the possibiliy for the player to change the names of all the characters was like opening up a whole new world for me. Unfortunately, I had only female teachers and nuns at my school, while the game has none, so the suspension of disbelief was kinda hard…
An average day at school
Skool Daze is a 1984 ZX Spectrum title, first and foremost, it was later ported on the Commodore 64 while looking pretty much identical: limited color palette, simple sprites. There’s also basically no music and not much in the way of sound effects. Still, it matters not since there’s much more bubbling beneath the surface of the title designed by David S. Reidy, the man behind small studio Microsphere along with his wife.
He recalls the idea behind it was “taking the long English tradition of comics and books about naughty schoolboys — Just William, St Custard’s, The Bash Street Kids — and making you the short-trousered hero”. The idea was always to juxtapose a main quest with the freedom of living something close to a true day at school. Indeed, Skool Daze plays like an adventure game and a school simulator all rolled into one. We could call it, an oldschool… old school simulator.
While many people did not ever find out, the final objective is stealing the school report from the headmaster’ safe, so that our main protagonist, Eric, can amend it and not suffer his parents’ anger. This has to be done in a week in the game’s internal clock and without being punished (with “lines”) too much, otherwise that will be game over. Eric shall be punished for doing anything that is not sitting at his desk in the right classroom. Actually, sometimes he’ll be punished through no fault of his own, just like real life, cause someone either ratted him out or punched him out of his chair.
Truth be told, even if one had an idea of what to do to complete the game, the actual solution to opening the safe is incredibly complicated. So much so that without having the manual, which contained a basic walkthrough, figuring it out shall be nigh impossible. Definitely, one of those legendary games that had a very low chance of ever being completed. But that hardly mattered, since there’s plenty to do even without even starting the tasks required to complete the game, like avoiding the kid who’s got mumps, stopping “the swot” from ratting you out to the headmaster, skipping classes, punching your other faceless classmates and generally wrecking havoc.
Sandbox before sand
A big part of Eric’s main quest will be hitting all the shields – found throughout the school – with his catapult, which is hard enough on its own, since some of them will actually be out of reach. After that even more complicated stuff to do, like figuring out several historical dates to get the history teacher to tell us a combination. Dave’s original idea was apparently to purposefully sneak in the game a few complicated historical events: “I remember thinking that it was probably going to teach people a few strange dates. I bet most people had never heard of the Battle of Lepanto until they’d played my game.”
And the final reward for getting the report back? Well, Eric just moves up a year and everything starts all over again. Not really worth all that blood and sweat. Indeed, Skool Daze was one of the first games people played not to get to the end, but to enjoy the freedom of causing mischiefs with the catapult, like tripping up the teachers and other students. It is wonderfully designed: the game never really forces the player to strictly follow its main quest gameplay. The main gameplay is seamlessly merged with the “open world” sandbox style, with each class playing a small vignette on the hardships of school.
There was something endlessly endearing in running away from the class one was supposed to be in, while trying not to be caught by the teacher. Not to mention the huge pleasure of punching the nerd before he would enter the classroom, so that he would be punished for being late. Since, at the time, I was a rather quiet and studious kid, the only chance I would get to act like a bully was firing up Skool Daze and well, putting my name in.
Despite the market being quite small, the game sold around 50k copies, recalls the developer. “Ten years later, we were thinking that we could have made a lot more money at the time, if we’d been clued up and actually done some proper marketing and merchandising. But I’m not going to cry at the opportunities we lost. We made a decent living out of Skool Daze — it paid for its development, a few times over.” The game got an original “bigger and better” sequel in the form of Back To Skool, which was never ported to the Commodore 64. The idea was to make a trilogy, with the final game Eric and Hayley’s Decathlon, being a sports game with a school motif, but that was never developed because by 1985 Spectrum sales were almost zero and Dave and his wife thought it was time “to get a real job”.
For 1984, the idea of developing a game where one was free to run around a school, causing mischief, while trying not to get caught by the teachers, was nothing short of ambitious and genious. Dave (and his graphic designer Keith Warrington) took the right inspirations to develop an original game that still to this day feels perfect for a quick pick-up-and-play session. They arrived decades early on that kind of sandbox style of gameplay that Rockstar will make a staple of its Grand Theft Auto series.
Years later the original game there was a quite well done, and free to boot, remake that combines both games into one. Should one wish to play a similar experience but with a friendlier user interface, check out Klass of 99. It was updated to also run on Windows 10.
Thank you for reading.
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Thanks to Pixelatron for the interview with the developer and graphic designer.