I first discovered Soft and Cuddly after securing a particularly large haul of copied games from my friend Thomas.
He had refused for weeks to let me have access to any of the tapes, insisting that he may need any of them at a moments notice and that he was playing them all on a daily basis. I had grown frustrated, some may say bitter, about this fact and ended up supplying him with several boxes of the classic C-15 “computape” brand cassettes for him to back up the backups onto. It took him some time but, eventually, he brought them to me in the playground. I remember looking at the tapes, scanning over the crudely written names on the featureless labels and trying to join them in my mind with the graphics I’d seen in recent issues of ‘Crash’ or ‘Your Sinclair’. One of the tapes said ‘soft & cuddly’ and, although i was unfamiliar with the name, it instantly conjured up images of the game “ah, diddums” in my mind. “Ah, diddums” was a borderline moronic romp in which you controlled a teddy bear in a very abstract room, trying to do god alone knows what. My sister was fond of it yet, despite playing it for some time, seemed as incapable as i was of actually figuring out what the point of it all was. So, “Soft & cuddly” got pushed aside in favour of other more obviously well known titles that i could easily wrap my imagination around. It was forgotten.
Thomas had a double tape deck, Fisher brand. It had a picture of a Kingfisher on it (I’ve no idea of the link between a British river bird and cassette duplication equipment. This still haunts me as a concept) and it came with one of those demo tapes that were often supplied with such systems in the 80’s. I think it was so you had something to play, should you choose to buy a tape player before you had actually sought out any actual tapes. The music on the tape was an electronic rendition of something classical, I believe, but it was really pacey and exciting. To me, it evoked images of “Hawk the Slayer”, a film with which I was rather obsessed as a child. This obsession resulted in me making a (very) makeshift bow and firing it at my sister, who immediately told my parents. I was subsequently banned from watching “Hawk the Slayer” again. I was also banned from watching “The Sword and the Sorcerer” because I almost got hot wax in my eye after trying to cover my head in it, seeking to emulate the ‘sorcerer awakening’ scene but I digress – and that had nothing to do with my sister. Anyway, This tape machine was in a sorry state of affairs due to us squeezing on the play and pause buttons whilst playing various spoken word tapes that Thomas’s mother had in relation to her work. We could get the speakers to emit a very mutilated version of what was actually on the cassette by doing this, resulting in female voices being reduced to dragged out, low growls and male voices turning into effeminate, chipmunk style high speed nonsense. This had resulted in the tape deck becoming extremely unreliable in terms of performing its basic function, copying tapes.
When I finally finished school and returned home with my bag of goodies I set up the ZX Spectrum in the front room and tried to load game after game but to no avail. My sister was out at the time with my mum buying new school shoes and it’s as well she was as, had she been present, she would surely have fallen victim to a remorseless and unforgiving ‘Chinese burn’. I am grateful my parents never banned me from joining them for Chinese takeaways as a result of my predilection for supplying my sister with these with monotonous regularity. I think they would have, had they had anything to do with China. I was so angry that day that I think I may even have tried to give myself one.
When I think back on this fateful day most of what I remember is sizzling red. I went through tape after tape, listening to the broken warble on the header data and watching what should have been solid bars of blue and red blinking on and off onscreen as pained warbling issued forth from my tv speakers. I think there must have been around twenty five tapes. None of them wanted to load.
I got to the bottom of the bag. Then I saw it. Shoved aside and passed over for everything that had just succeeded in failing me. There it was. Resentment and resignation mingled with a faint glimmer of hope. At least I might have …. Something. At least there was a chance. So, I took a sip from my cold cup of tea (I was banned from using the kettle as a result of a previous incident so had to prepare myself cold tea using the cold water tap in the bathroom) and put “Soft & Cuddly” into the Cassette player. I remember taking the leads in and out, too. I told myself this made a difference and I still believe it did. I think, if I recall correctly, that I also put my hand on the tape player, as if to reassure it, to try to prepare it to interpret the data correctly rather than producing that familiar yet thoroughly unwanted warble that I had been treated to continually over the preceding hours.
I pressed play.
The signal was strong. The tape sounded as good as an original. The bars onscreen were solid as rock (if rock was blue and red and projected on a cathode ray tube). I held onto my jubilation, however, as the battle was far from won. Many times in this batch I had encountered tapes that sounded just that little better yet produced the dreaded R TAPE LOADING ERROR at the very last moment. I resisted the urge to push down on the lid of the tape caddy (which was sometimes required to load certain games, but to do so mid-load was madness). I was panicking slightly. Could this tape redeem the day ? Even if I was to control a moronic teddy bear or some recalcitrant baby and have no clue what was going on, heavens, it would at least be something !
The loading screen appeared. “Soft & Cuddly” written in the top left. A large THE POWER HOUSE logo in the middle. I had no idea what this was about, as I didn’t know at the time that THE POWER HOUSE was a software company. I thought Soft & Cuddly might have been the programmers name and THE POWER HOUSE was the actual game title. It did seem a strange name for a programmer to have but then these were the days of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. My mind raced. Could this game turn from saboteur to saviour ? It loaded.
I could not believe what I was seeing. On screen was an image that will never leave me. The fear of a TAPE LOADING ERROR shattered and behind that wall of doubt, fear and trepidation lay a shimmering, pixellated sunrise, radiant in all the colours of inappropriateness. The image that stared back at me from the television was that of a lurid, blinking face, framed with what looked like grim pastiches of the cookie monster that appeared to be…. eating babies ?
This was not “Ah, Diddums”. This was nothing like “Ah, Diddums”.
The face wore a spiked crown, or was it half a mantrap, the other half buried in its scalp ? It had its lower left eyelid severed and its frenzied attempts to blink only ever resulted in half of the white being obscured. What torture had befallen this disembodied head ? What joys lay beyond this screen ? I sat in the front room, the dying grey winter light outside dulling my surroundings, my face illuminated, bathing in the joyous glow emanating from the television set.
In the days when Mary Whitehouse and her idiotic mental conservatism was rampant and all of the films I wanted to see the most were being placed on the VIDEO NASTIES list, could it be that I finally had some form of playable video nasty ? Could it be that I could actually cast myself in these fantastically grim environments that my young mind so longed to explore ? My mind reeled.
I started the game and was greeted with scene after scene that could only, for myself at the time, be described as a desecration of all that was expected of the computer “games” industry. This was beyond a game. This was a statement. It was a damning indictment of everything ring fenced and British. It was a pathway leading from the cosseted, predictable games of that period into something far more abstract and expressive. Something far more individual. One mans personal hell that gamers across the land were invited to join him in. I could not comprehend how I had not heard of the game before. I also knew that there was no way that Thomas had tried the game, presumably thinking as I had about its childish title and casting it aside. Would I have to HIDE THIS GAME FROM MY PARENTS ?
Many years later I revisited this game for my “Funkyspectrum” youtube channel.
It has lost none of its bite. All of the old feelings I had when I first loaded it up came flooding back. It was, in many ways, a time capsule back to that special day. A window into a bygone era where individuality and the act of personal expression did not instantly grant the perpetrator pariah status. The game still has the shock factor. It still stands up as the work of an individual. One man who sought to poke his finger right in the eye of the established norm at the time. For better or for worse, it stands as a grim beacon, casting its lurid light out across the video gaming landscape. Soft & Cuddly was, and remains, one of the standout experiences for the ZX Spectrum and, ironically, seems almost more at home in the modern world than it ever did in the past.
A world that is now, by any stretch of the definition, anything but Soft & Cuddly.
George Cropper aka George Bum
youtube.com/funkyspectrum (warning, contains potentially offensive content)