For Zx Spectrum day over at Skirmish Frogs, I produced a couple of articles explaining why the Speccy is so important to UK gamers. I thought id combine them both into one super article here so, without further ado, here you go!
If there’s an observation to be made about online retrogaming culture, there’s a definite US bias. This isn’t a criticism by any means as I can definitly say I’ve learned a lot about Atari and the like from visiting US-centric retro sites. In the same spirit of cultural interchange, I’d like to talk a bit about a subject close to my heart: the ZX Spectrum.
From a UK perspective, the Speccy has a similar level of importance as the NES has in the US. Though we ended up at the same destination, our video game industries developed very differently: There was no massive surge in the market for videogame consoles before 1983, and there was consequently no crash during that year. Indeed, consoles themselves didn’t really take off until Sega arrived at the end of the 1980s. For most of the decade the focus was on home computers, and the spearhead for this revolution was the Zx Spectrum. Over a ten year period that began in 1982, the computer would sell millions of hardware units, act as a home to thousands of games and spawn a number of important developers who would go on to shape our shared electronic future. The Zx Spectrum may not be part of your gaming heritage, but here are a few reasons why you might want to take more than a passing interest in Sinclair’s little black box anyway:
Part one: The Importance of the Zx spectrum
Spearheaded by egg-headed computer expert Sir Clive Sinclair, the Zx Spectrum was fashioned to be a bit different from other computers. Where other companies were happy to offer exotic features for a high price point, Sir Clive’s machines were bare-bones creations designed so that they were affordable to all. The Spectrum’s immediate predecessor, the ZX81, had been available in kit form for as little as £50. The cheapest iteration of the Spectrum retailed – fully assembled – for £125. By contrast, The Spectrum’s great rival the Commodore 64 was released in the same year for £399. Blimey. I bet you can now see why there are so many UK based Spectrum fans now, can’t you?
Why was the Spectrum so much cheaper? Well, a quick examination of the unit reveals that the thing was savagely cost controlled: From the absence of a power or reset button to the ‘dead flesh’ feel of its rubber keyboard, it was clear that the only things going into Sir Clive’s box were things that expressly needed to be there.
This had a couple of interesting side effects on the Zx Spectrum as a game machine. Though the Spectrum had been designed as a cheaper answer to the incoming wave of fancy home computers with full-colour graphics, it needed to employ a colour solution that fitted Sinclair’s cost-controlled ethos. The solution, established by Sinclair designer Richard Altwasser, was pretty ingenious: Equipped with a 4-bit palette, ZX Spectrum coders had access to 15 colours (well, ‘bright’ and ‘dark’ shades of 7 colours plus black) and had an overall screen resolution of 256×192 – an output significantly higher than the Commodore 64’s commonly used 160 × 200 colour mode.
The only problem with this solution was that, as a memory saving measure, colour was handled at a much lower resolution than that of the screen. This meant that every 8×8 group of pixels rendered on screen had to share the same foreground and a background colour. If two adjacent objects had different attributes (say a character coloured white against a tree that was coloured brown) then the colour attributes would ‘clash,’ causing one object to become the same the colour as the other. Ooh eck. Though this was acceptable for slower-paced adventure games, it was of course completely unworkable for any fast-paced action game that depended on a lot of movement. As a consequence, a good chunk of the Spectrum’s library had to be rendered in monochrome.
It was a similar story in the sound department too. While the Commodores and the Ataris of this world were equipped with their own dedicated Programmable Sound Generators, The Spectrum’s bare-bones design meant that, for its’ first iteration at least, Spectrum and game designers had make do with a simple piezoelectric buzzer. Just like the graphics, this was an interesting solution: Though the buzzer was technically 1-bit (i.e. the only hardware control was to turn it on and off,) it was driven directly by the CPU.
The involvement of the CPU complicated matters. While the sound on other console was governed largely by the physical construction of their sound chip, the complexity of beeper music was (and is) limited only by the cleverness of the sound driver used to talk to it. Multiple channels, special effects and sampled speech can all be recreated on a 48k spectrum – even if everything had a distinctly aggressive fuzz to it. As cool as this was, s with the graphics there was a major trade off to be made. 48k spectrum games might have had some awesome music on their title screens, but the amount of heavy lifting done by the CPU meant it wasn’t practical to have sound and gameplay at the same time.
The same pattern of cost/benefit can be seen the outside of the machine as well. Though the cost-controlled keyboard was made of a rubber that felt like ‘dead flesh’, the actual case design was smaller and smarter than most of the competition. A tiny black box emblazoned with a distinct Rainbow Motif, The unit still holds up as a thing of beauty and acts as a clear example of how style doesn’t necessarily have to cost money.
The Spectrum hardware was an interesting mish-mash of both premium and bargain characteristics then: Spectrum games were generally displayed in a higher resolution than the competition’s, but colour (at least in gameplay areas) was often lacking. The sounds a composer could create with its buzzer were individual, but too CPU intensive to be used in game. The machine looked absolutely fantastic, but felt like dead flesh.
Of these characteristics, only the colour was set in stone, however. like with modern consoles, the spectrum design changed over time. Originally released in 16k and 48k variants, the cheaper 16k option was soon dropped as it simply wasn’t up to running the kinds of software the audience demanded. The 48k model received an updated case design in June 1984, but the machine received no internal enhancements until the arrival of 1986’s Spectrum 128. The 128 not only boosted the RAM up to a mammoth 128k but also included a MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) port, scart/monitor port and a dedicated programmable sound generator which allowed for in-game music.
Given the 16-bit Amiga had already been released in the US the year before, you’d think that such an update would be met with consumer apathy. However, by 1986 the Spectrum still offered a lot of bang for a relatively small amount of buck (£180 in 1986) and the system continued to sell (in various different guises after Sinclair was bought out by Amstrad,) into the 1990s.
Cultural Meaning of the Zx Spectrum
“We bought it to help with your homework, and the household accounts, if your dad ever works it all out” So begins the song “Hey Hey 16k” by MJ Hibbet and the Validators. It’s a fantastic opening and one that helps exemplify just how important the Spectrum was from a cultural perspective. You see, though the Spectrum might be comparable with the NES from the perspective of a games machine, as a fully functional computer the Spectrum was capable of so much more.
Sadly, for the most part the Spectrum’s non-gaming potential didn’t really pan out. Though there were some utilities released for the Spectrum, it was never a computer that Dad would be able to do the accounts on. Likewise “I need one to help me with my homework” also turned out to be a statement that, though often repeated, was slightly less than honest – unless your homework assignment involved shooting space invaders, of course.
Consequently, the only major non-game playing activity that really took off on the Spectrum was, well, writing them. the Spectrum booted straight into Sinclair’s implementation of the BASIC language (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code,) meaning that your Spectrum was ready and waiting to create custom game code from the second you turned it on at the wall.
While many people never progressed further than learning the code required to have their Spectrum (or more desirably, someone else’s) churn out an endless strings of rude words, plenty of people did. A small industry soon formed helping these bedroom coders, and their was an abundance of both dry text books that taught you the fundamentals of coding and magazines that contained the code games you could type in and play. Hurrah!
The effect of this sudden new industry shouldn’t be underestimated. In 1982, a fifteen year old student in Northern Ireland sent the code for a game he’d written into one such magazine and received a £450 cheque for his efforts. He went on to get a job as an apprentice in the industry, and ended up working on the Spectrum ports of both the arcade game Smash T.V. and the NES game based on the Teenage Ninja Turtles Cartoon. The teenager’s name was Dave Perry and he went on to develop the Megadrive versions of Aladdin and Cool Spot for Virgin, before going on to create the Earthworm Jim and MDK series’.
His story isn’t a one off, either. The Spectrum’s involvement in the beginning of Rare’s career is already well known, but it’s noteworthy that the Spectrum played an important part in the creation of both Wipeout pioneers Psygnosis (who split from defunct software house Imagine in 1984) and GTA creators DMA design (which sprung from like-minded amateur coders who met at the Kingsway Amateur Computer Club in Dundee.) The environment created by the Spectrum (alongside, slightly later, the Commodore 64) was a winning one: established coders had cheap and open platforms with large install bases, while wannabee coders had a system withon which they could learn the trade. It was win-win for everyone.
Over the course of its life span, the Spectrum helped change the entire sphere of computing, then. In 1982, computing was a niche, specialist affair. The Spectrum itself was originally released via mail order only and couldn’t be found in the shops. Indeed, the 16k Spectrum’s 32k ram expansion even used ‘minimal soldering required’ as one of its selling points. By the mid eighties everything had changed. Millions of computers had found their way into people’s homes. Sweet shops sold budget games and magazines devoted to home computing, and big department stores stocked premium releases in chunky card board boxes.For those who had learned to code, there were numerous opportunities to break into the industry and get their creations published. Yes, it’s note worthy that this wasn’t entirely down to the Spectrum (rivalry with the country’s Commodore 64 owners was a popular dividing line in the school playground,) but it had played a very important part. Traditional children’s media, such as comics, were in decline. After the home computer revolution nothing would be the same again.
Of course, all of that is a bit irrelevant if none of the games hold up, do are there any reasons to look into Spectrum games library today?
This is a tricky question to answer. One thing that will become obvious from even the most cursory examination of 8-bit microcomputer libraries is that, unlike their console-building opponents, neither Sinclair nor Commodore were great producers of software. Sinclair dabbled to be sure, but there isn’t isnt the same sort of canon of manufacturer-programmed hits you find with a machine built by Sega or Nintendo. Almost all of the titles available on the spectrum were shared. With the Commodore 64 and visa versa.
That’s not to say the Spectrum didn’t have a library of compelling software, mind you. I’ve highlighted a few areas below where Sinclair’s box of tricks is still capable of performing some magic.
While most UK software houses focussed on spreading their titles to as many different platforms as possible, there are still a number of notable titles that you’ll only be able to play on a Speccy.
An obvious example is Death Chase 3d. Clearly inspired by the speeder bike chase from Return of The Jedi, Death Chase stands as a fascinating testament as to the kind of game you can fit into the memory footprint of an empty MS docx file. The controls are a bit wonky and the suspicious 3d effect basically means that the trees effectively jump out at you, but its relative rapid pace means that it still delivers a decent hit of arcade action today.
Another good example of a Speccy exclusive is Skool Daze. Based in the rigid confines of a British Secondary school, the player is tasked with maintaining a veneer of conformity while simultaneously hatching a plan to break into the head master’s office so that he can switch his real end of term report with a forgery. Featuring the ability to escape from classes and shoot random teaches (and fellow pupils) with a catapault, Skool Daze’s mechanics have never really been replicated anywhere else – despite the superficial similarity to Rock Star’s Bully.
The Spec had some truly great originals, then. However, not every great game had to be exclusive.
Spec is Best
In the modern era, big budgets and huge teams mean that, generally, games are pretty much identical across different platforms (the odd Arkham Knight excepted.) In the Spectrum’s day, things were different. Though the base hardware governed the raw nature of your average ported game (C64 games were more colourful, Spectrum games were sharper,) the overall quality of a port depended entirely on the programming skills of two or three individuals.
Despite being based on the same game then, the Spectrum and C64 ports could be completely different games, made to completely different priorities. Where the Spectrum port of Outrun was an attempt to recreate all aspects of the original machine, for example, the Commodore version is a much more basic affair which ditched the title’s trademark branching tracks for a fixed route that was easier to load from a linear cassette tape.
A great example of a game that plays best on the Spectrum is Ocean’s version of Chase H.Q. if you can get past the yellow and black game world, you’ll uncover a massively rewarding experience. Not only does the port include features absent from the PC Engine and Master System versions (such as sampled speech and the helpful police helicopter on stage 2) but the overall experience is probably closer to the feel of the arcade than even the 16-bit Atari and Commodore iterations managed.
These aren’t the only examples either. C64 Robocop is a much harsher game than its (reasonably tough) Speecy counterpart, and the Spectrum version of fantastic beat ’em up Target Renegade has a cooperative two player mode that is entirely absent from the Commodore game. Though it would be wrong to say that the Speccy version was always better, there are definitely enough examples to demonstrate that the spectrum version should never be discounted completely.
The consensus today might well be that licensed games tend to be rushed, unimaginative cash ins, but back when the Spectrum was king the picture wasn’t anything near as clear cut. From a pill-popping tie-in based on pop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood to a game based on comedian Adrian Edmonson’s tongue-in-cheek life manual “How To Be a CompleteBastard, ” anything and everything seemed to end up with a tie in Spectrum game. Sure, there was a lot of crud, but a lot of them were rather good too. The Trapdoor, for example, is an extremely unique game based on a popular children’s claymation: Taking the role of the series’ hero, Berk, the player is tasked with working out how to successfully construct a number of weird and wonderful meals for Berk’s master, the Thing Upstairs. There might have been hundreds of games produced for the NES and the Master System, but I guarantee you won’t find anything quite like it in either of those libraries.
Indeed, the same goes for quite a lot of the licensed games in the Zx Spectrum’s arsenal: 8-bit consoles probably won’t have anything quite like the political strategy game based on the TV series “Yes, Prime Minister,” nor like the Proto-GTA adventure based on Miami Vice. That’s not to say there aren’t some terrible cash-ins – most of the games based on James Bond films were terrible – but nonetheless the reign of the Spectrum and C64 represents an unprecedented era of experimental creativity in the field of licensed software.
When people talk about the Spectrum in the UK media, there’s some sort of weird unwritten rule that they have to wittle on about early Spectrum titles like Horace Goes Skiing and Death Chase. Now, as we’ve seen with Death Chase, some of these games are all time classics. Realistically, however, if you were playing on a Spectrum after 1985 you were probably doing so for the arcade ports. Now, I know what you’re thinking, and in some senses there probably isn’t much point in chasing down obscure 8-bit versions of arcade games that can so easily be emulated, but I’d argue that Spectrum arcade ports are still interesting for a few of reasons.
From a technical perspective, many of them are absolute marvels. The Spectrum port of Sega’s Galaxy force might be in monochrome, and might still have some horrendous colour clash despite that fact, but it actually tries to incorporate more of the fine details from the original arcade than either of Sega’s own versions. Though rushed to market, The Spectrum version of Rampage includes impressive AI companions that don’t feature in either the Master System or NES conversions. The glorious Spectrum conversion of Strider includes big, chunky sprites that retain much more detail than other 8-bit versions
On top of this, a number of the Spectrum arcade ports are classic games in their own right. Midnight Resistance, for instance, makes use of a completely different graphical stye from the source material and offers an interesting change of pace and difficulty.
Meanwhile, the creators of the Spectrum ports of of Ghouls’n’Ghosts, NARC and R-TYPE managed to somehow pull off perfect recreations of 16-bit environments in a humble 8-bit box from 1982. Sure, the graphical nuance may have gone, but in terms of pacing they’re absolutely perfect recreations that really need to be seen to be believed.
A final point of interest is the actual size and breadth of the library. At the beginning of its life, the Spectrum library was filled with cheap and nasty knock offs of titles like Space Invaders and Frogger. A decade later, the system’s swan song was an ill-advised port of Street Fighter II. Consequently, the Spectrum was home to almost every game created during the golden age of the 16-bit arcade. From Zaxxon to G-LOC, the Spectrum probably has a more complete library of Sega arcade releases than either the Megadrive of Mastersystem.
I’m sure this wasn’t a category you thought you’d be seeing here, but the Spectrum boasted a pretty complete library of three dimensional games. Though a lot of these used unfilled vector shapes (think the original Star Wars arcade game) there were a number of titles that boasted fully filled 3d shapes, including an impressive (if uncontrollable) port of Atari’s Hard Drivin’.
Most of the games that featured filled polygons tender to be ponderous puzzle-based adventure games whose gameplay was unaffected by slow frame rates. Driller and Castle master are two shining examples of this genre, though if you don’t like these you could always make your own thanks to an impressively functional title called ‘3d construction kit.’
Because it was much less taxing to draw vector lines instead of filled shapes, vector games tended to cross a much wider array of genres. Outside of classic space sim Elite there were a number of more arcadey vector titles (including Battle Zone and Star Wars) and also some ambitious adventure and simulator titles. The flowing organic villains of vector title Star Glider will be of more than passing interest to any fans of Fox McCloud and the Star Fox gang.
For an 80’s Speccy owner, the best thing about the 3d titles was that the more expensive C64 simply couldn’t keep up. Where amphibious action-strategy game Carrier Command was a fully 3D game one the Spectrum, the C64 version was a Disappointingly two dimensional top down affair. Ha.
That’s a quick overview of some of my favourite aspects of the Zx Spectrum library, but there’s tons more. Batman and Head over Heels, for example, are two isometric maze games that will help scratch at the itch of any intrepid dungeon crawler.
If tabletop gaming is more your bag, the likes of Chaos and Laser Squad are inspired attempts at bringing Games Workshop-style action onto the small screen. Both remain fantastic choices for local multiplayer games.
Finally. For those who like their games a bit less usual, Streaker is a fascinating game built around the concept of losing your clothes, while Rockstar Ate my Hamster is an impressive attempt to forge a music industry management sim. Don’t even get me started on the hundreds of text adventures…
There may not be something for everyone, but the Zx Spectrum library contains a breathtakingly wide array of gaming experiences, covering the entire range from forgettable instant action through to impenetrable simulation. Many titles may not have aged well, but there are as many titles that play as well today as they did in the 1980s. If you feel inclined to jump in, you won’t regret giving the little black box a try.