Sunday 30 April 2017

Icon driven

When Apple Macintosh made a splash on the computer scene with its mouse/icon desktop interface in 1984, the occasion had a curious side effect. Software on humble 8-bit computers such as ZX Spectrum and C64 started to feature icons too. Not only utility programs but games were suddenly adorned with an interpretation of the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Mouse, Pointer) approach.

Of course, graphical interface elements had been hanging around for a while in different forms, but the Xerox Parc/Apple approach was the one that became, er, iconic.

It was exciting to have a peep into an icon-driven windowed environment on your cheapo Speccy or C64, as a Mac would be a very expensive ride. It makes me think that early 1980s home computer games were not only entertainment but demonstrative showcases of computer tech you could not otherwise have.

Here I've tried to include some of the more important, curious or representative icon-controlled games from this early period. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish the boundary between "icon-driven" games and point-and-click adventures, and I've only tried to include the most interesting borderline cases.


Arguably, Alien might not have been that much influenced by the Mac phenomenon. It is more reminiscent of earlier graphic CAD workstation displays, with a schematic plan main screen and text-based menus at the side. You don't have a floating cursor but menu items are highlighted. So, in effect the game can be played with two keys.

You are in control of multiple characters, and actions are afforded depending on whether there are exits or objects present. This is pretty much a semi-real time adventure game with rooms, items and locations. On occasions you may be presented with a graphic depiction of the Alien or Jones the cat scuttling across the screen. These incidents can be pretty startling, despite the primitive graphics.

As the scenario plays in real-time, icons serve better than text-based commands. It would be rather unfair to punish the player for slow typing speeds... Also, the relevant commands need not be remembered as they are displayed on screen.


On the heels of Alien, Shadowfire was one of the earliest successful icon-driven 8-bit games, where the graphical environment was used as a selling point. Here, as in many games, the icons largely replace text adventure-style commands, for example using a combination of "pick up" and afterwards the icon for the object to be picked up.

The icon screens work pretty smoothly, but the arrangement is where the age shows. You need to click "computer" screens to get to the movement, battle and inventory screens and these computer icons are only differentiated with color. Some icons are puzzling initially, with added detail where a simpler graphic might have served better.

In hindsight it would seem obvious that a half-formed action could be cancelled by clicking the already clicked icon, but instead you have to go and select the "back" icon.

Even though the icon system is very slick, moving and managing six characters around a large map becomes a daunting task, constantly switching between screens and character selection. It's mind-numbing, and I start to wish there was at least a short-cut key to each character.

Enigma Force

This sequel to Shadowfire used the same icon system, but the main game plays in a real-time arcade adventure type screen. The complexity of Shadowfire is reduced, with only 4 main characters with 4-direction movement. The icon layout now scrolls when the cursor is pushed left or right, giving a more streamlined set of actions than in Shadowfire.

The characters can be given pre-programmed motion instructions, should you know before-hand how the map lays out, that is. There's also a "mind control" icon that allows direct control of a character via joystick.

The icons themselves don't look that much clearer, and in addition to the "back" icon there is also an "oops" icon to remove actions from the queue.


Aliens from Electric Dreams took game elements from Alien/Shadowfire/Enigma Force, transforming the influences into an intense semi-first person action adventure.

Not an icon controlled game, though, which is just as well. The lineage and a game screen layout that is suggestive of multi-window environment makes the game worth including here. Perhaps it started to dawn on the designers that certain things were better done with keyboard.

Fourth Protocol

A Frederik Forsyth tie-in, the game is visually very reminiscent of the Apple Mac environment, but in motion it is a quite simplistic interpretation. The pointer does not move freely but is switched between icons, much like in Alien, opening up iterations for your decision tree.

The game is in reality quite text-heavy and at points you have to type in names and numbers. As the game opens you find yourself reading files and memos, assigning watchers to potential cases and getting reports out of them. Later on you go on a physical-world adventure which is extremely minimal in its descriptions. (i.e. "Victoria, Tube Station, Ticket Office")

Mission Omega

A very complete implementation of a windowed environment with drop down menus, the game could even be played with a mouse. The Commodore 64 version is especially nice-looking, but it's also imitating the Mac interface very heavily. The section where you build your droids is impressive.

After this section, I have to say the game content is rather minimal. You move around in a boring maze, giving orders to each of the robots.

Star Trek: The Rebel Universe

Admittedly, this is a 16-bit game, but it also appeared on the Commodore 64.

This is a complete icon-controlled game, without any drop-down menus or much text for that matter. One interesting idea is that multiple roles of the Enterprise crew are shown as mini-screens around the main screen, again something you might have seen in a CAD program.

Something similar was on the drawing board of the Electric Dreams' Aliens game. Sadly the Star Trek screens don't update in any real time, but that might have been the goal at one time.

There's something left of this idea in how further option screens come available as character screens are opened. Bringing these out (solar system, engineering, star chart) re-customizes the surrounding screens, but arguably these are just big icons.

Stifflip & co.

A very bog-standard example of an icon-driven adventure game, showing some elements of a nascent "point'n'click" adventure: the characters are shown on-screen. The humorous and big graphics makes Stifflip more memorable. The aesthetic has more to do with comic strips and silent movies than with Apple Mac.

Much like with Fourth Protocol, it's more of a graphic multiple-choice game with windowed sub-selections, and you'll be picking actions from text-based menus a lot.

Icon Jon

An obscure Amstrad CPC game that plays something like the Magic Knight games but the icons are more visually defined (and Apple style).

The game is controlled using a set of icons but also has computers, computer architecture and programming as the topic of the game. Bit like in TRON, the game depicts life inside computer circuitry. You can pick up and manipulate items and 'chat' with the cast of characters.

The title and game idea goes to show how intense the whole icon phenomenon was at the time.


Four command icons placed around the main radar screen. As activities take place, new windows "pop up" around the screen with live sequences and further information. The windows "multitask" to some extent, so not all action stops just because you choose an icon.

You control a smoothly moving cursor, much like in Shadowfire. On occasion the Commodore 64 goes full on with the window overload, as every action seems to bring up multitudes of windows for iterating your action. The ZX Spectrum version is less impressive.


  1. This one was pretty incomprehensible for the 10-year-old me:

    1. Never seen that one (Quake Minus One). It still looks incomprehensible :)

  2. Thank you! I have been looking for Shadowfire for years, and finally found the name of the game from this page =)

  3. I loved yes minister and shadowfire