The phrase “Retro-Gaming” conjures up images of PacMan, Mario, Space Invaders, but for many of us it’s also associated with one of the vast array of home computers that we grew up with before PC’s became the default computing platform. Regular travellers to my corner of the internet will know that some of my earliest gaming was on the Atari STe; a titan of the late 80’s home computing market with its desktop graphical interface a resplendent green whilst many PC users of the time were still command-lining it up in DOS.
Of course I was way too young to use it for anything practical, but this bulky grey box set up in the study was undeniably a source of intrigue for my young mind and my parents had furnished us with a modest selection of games…. including Postman Pat….
I hope that for anyone reading this in the UK “Pat” doesn’t need any explanation, but for those of you reading elsewhere in the world you may not be familiar with the Royal Mail’s attempt to control young minds with antics of a charismatic Postman. Pat, his red post van, and partner in crime… the world’s most obedient black & white cat… Jess (seriously, the cat went everywhere with him and would happily wait in the van when instructed) lived in the small village of Greendale along with a handful of memorable stereotypes. Most children from the 80’s will know his adventures preserved for the ages in the form of stop motion animation, but the ST game is just another way that Pat infiltrated our homes.
This enigmatic bright red floppy disk (at a time when most disks were blue) was a compendium of sorts containing three mini-games and the “MAIN GAME”; so before I get on to the “MAIN GAME” I’ll run down the treats of the mini games. First up is Snakes & Ladders, cunningly “Pat themed” because the counters are Postman Pat related sprites. Unfortunately the futility of Snakes & Ladders is starkly highlighted by a video game where even the simple joy of moving a counter around a board has been removed. The player’s only interaction is to hit a button to move… there’s not even a dice roll animation. Next up is the marginally more interactive Ludo which also includes the ability to pick which counter to move, but for some reason always came across as being even more bland than the Snakes & Ladders because the board was so dull. Finally there’s a game labelled “Snap”, which is similar to the bonus Mario Bros. 3 game where you need to hit stop at the right time to line up the scrolling pictures. A creepy carousel of Postman Pat’s cast scrolls by on one side of the screen, their upper and lower bodies divided and the player must hit stop to match them up. Of course, this game is aimed at the younger audience and as bonus distractions I can’t say that I ever complained as a child; however the “MAIN GAME” was why I’d put the disk in.
… and at this point a disclaimer… I was going to go back and remind myself of the game by playing a short amount on an emulator, but as soon as I fired it up the music began… that incessant Postman Pat theme …nonstop… blaring out of the Atari’s speakers. I have no idea how my parents didn’t snap one day, rip the disk from the system and burn it. I couldn’t even face it in emulation form; so this retrospective is just that… supported by gameplay videos.
I like to think of Postman Pat as an early ancestor of Grand Theft Auto, but with less violent crime and stealing of vehicles. The player is charged with guiding that famous … “Bright Red Van” (“… all the people smile as he waves to greet them…” now it’s in your head too)… through the winding country roads of Greendale, hemmed in my dry stone walls, as he delivers parcels and letters. Sure it sounds innocent enough, but looking back I’m convinced that in this scenario Pat was in some kind of purgatory, a limbo state, between universes in a place ruled by demons.
The first choice the player must make is to play the game on ‘easy’ or ‘hard’. If you thought games like “Ghosts and Goblins” were hard, you’ve clearly never tried to play Postman Pat on hard. Select this mode and if you so much as graze a dry stone wall with the van and you’ll need to go and get a new one; three of these and you’re out. The roads are crazy narrow and covered in muddy patches that make it lurch suddenly in random directions which is unsurprising as the shocks seem to be shot given how it rolls nauseatingly from side to side whenever it’s moving. Played from a top-down view the player just has to point the joystick in the direction they want to move, but this doesn’t ever feel like steering and the precise arc that it travels in to get to that direction can be difficult to judge. Even worse is trying to turn around without touching the walls.
Easy is the only way to play this game, but without the risk of losing lives it turns in to an inescapable postal nightmare.
The first hurdle is navigation. There is no map, and each screen loads in as you drive off the edge of the last one (similar to the original Zelda, but without the neat scrolling animation). Given that most of the screens are a road, or junction, surrounded by dry stone wall, it’s an effort to even remember which way you can from or work out where you should be going. Drive around for long enough and you’ll find the Post Office near the village centre (I guess) where Pat will head in the speak to the Post Mistress (Mrs…. Goggins?). If this is a realm inhabited by demons then she is the devil in disguise. She drip feeds Pat parcels and letters throughout the day rather then simply setting him off on that day’s round. “Oh Pat, please take this parcel to Ted Glenn“, not “Oh Pat, here is your daily round and enjoy your afternoon when you’re finished“. In good spirits Pat trudges off back to his van, bounces around the Post Office car park, before heading off to try and work out where Ted Glenn’s house is. Of course as the player you have no idea where Ted Glenn’s house is so you find any house and wander in; if you got it right then lucky you, but otherwise the autonomous inhabitant will mechanically tell you how nice it is that you dropped in, but you really should be on your way… yes Pat, on your way. No respite for you here… continue with your eternal task…
So you head back out in your van to find Ted Glenn’s house, but suddenly there’s a cyclist coming toward you (presumably Miss Hubbard), Oh No! there’s nowhere to swerve to you’re going to hit her head on… but wait… no…. she’s… she’s teleported through you van, simply a spectre forever cycling through the roads of Greendale. You carry on a few more screens and … ARGH! here she is again, travelling in a completely different direction… and again …and again… She menaces Pat with her completely illogical movements until finally you arrive at a different house, and who is inside? yes, it’s Miss Hubbard, calmly in her home ushering you back out on to the roads so presumably you can run her over a few dozen more times.
Finally you might make it to Ted Glenn’s house, he thanks you for the parcel and sends you back to the Post Office. Where there is a small stack of letters for you to launch from your van in to the flashing doors in the village, then another parcel and maybe the recipient will coerce you into some minor side quest, such as helping Peter Fogg round up some sheep… then more letters.. parcel… letters.. parcel.. letters… parcel… until finally you’ve exhausted all the occupants of the village and Pat is ready to relax, finish his shift, put up his feet… cease his toil.
… But no, there’s another parcel for Ted Glenn and the whole miserable cycle continues. The day never turns to evening, the van never runs out of fuel, the villagers never allow Pat to rest. His torture is relentless, so eventually as the player you’ll snap and try to drive off in to the sunset. Taking the road seemingly away from the village with the van at top speed, but no matter which direction you go the road always loops back around and brings you back to those stone cottages and the demon Goggins waiting with another handful of mail. There’s a picture of Pat on the game screen boarder staring out at the player, his eyes silently screaming, never permitted to stop.
… damn you Goggins…. damn you….