ZX Spectrum

April 23rd, 2012

I think this is a fairly unusual thing for me to write about, not only is it the second time I’ve updated this site in a week but it’s not a rant on a subject I know little about.

It’s also a surprise as I wasn’t expecting to write this. The news that the Sinclair ZX Spectrum has turned 30 shocked me a bit, not because I doubt they’ve figured it out correctly but because it made me think about the massive impact it had on my life and everything that came after it, essentially it defined most of the last thirty years for me.

Unlike many people I’ve noticed on Twitter this morning, I didn’t get hold of a Spectrum and become inspired to programme, it tweaked my interest a little but  I was much more interested in consuming anything that other people created. The Spectrum was my first initiation into video games and I think it’s fair to say it stuck.

Actually that might not be quite true, in the 70s I did have a Binatone Pong console thing, it was rubbish.

My launch into the world of home computing came as a complete surprise. I remember one rainy Saturday  in 1982 that the postman brought my Dad a curious brown box. I had no comprehension of what a computer really was, why we would need one or that one was on the way. I remember watching as it got set up on the portable TV upstairs (yes, we had a second TV in 1982) and some vague reassurance that it would help me with homework or something. With hindsight I now realise my Dad didn’t have a clue what a Spectrum was either.

The only software that came with the Spectrum was there Horizons tape. This gave you everything you needed for an insight into the powerful world of computing, once you’d figured out how to connect a tape player to the back and found that ridiculous, unique, combination of volume, tone and balance that allowed you to load software, life became easier once dedicated tape players were available but that first day was mostly guess work.

Horizons isn’t something I have much recollection of, mainly because most of it was rubbish. Much of it was tutorials that taught you how the Spectrum worked and some software. The obvious stand out was Thro’ the Wall, this was the thing that really opened my eyes to video games and made me realise why we needed a computer.

At the time there were very few other games about and those that were available didn’t tend to be in shops in Eastbourne where I grew up. The only two games that WH Smiths had in their embryonic games section were 3D Monster Maze and Meteor Storm. Looking at the Internet it seems like my recollection of 3d Monster Maze is wrong, all I can find is a ZX81 maze game, whereas the one I’m thinking of was a top down 3d maze with monsters in, maybe that’s why I’ve created my own unique memory of it. Meteor Storm was the most exciting prospect as it combined Asteroids and speech, yes it could talk. Every now and then it would shout “meteor alert”, or at least something like that. The Spectrum sound chip was so bad that you would only know there was speech if you’d already read the tape case.

There other problem I had was that games cost about £3.99 in 80s and that was a ridiculous amount of money to get together.

Consequently the only initial route to getting games was to type code into the Spectrum from a magazine. Sometimes pages and pages of code, generally pages and pages of faulty code. I remember my Dad really wanted a flight simulator, and the only one about was the most daunting thing that Your Computer had committed to page. I’m pretty sure it never worked, I think they were printing corrections to the code for months.

Many people will tell you that this experience of coding taught them how to become programmers. This experience of coding taught me I needed to find a more efficient way to pirate games off other people.

The next few years were devoted to perfecting the technique of tape to tape piracy and accumulating as many games as possible. As we fondly remember the Spectrum most people will not mention that 90% of the games released on it were truly appalling. I’d be surprised if there were many games that got much more than one or two hours play out of them. This was mainly because there were so many of them and nobody really had any concept of quality control. The 10% that were good were inspired and stunning example of what can be fitted into less memory than your average Word Document.

The birth of this new industry also caused an explosion in magazines devoted to games. The most influential for me being Crash Magazine. This was notable for me because the people who made it related to their customers in a way I’d never seen before or since. If there was part of a game that you couldn’t figure out you could just ring the magazine office and ask if anyone there had any ideas. It seemed odd to just have the people that wrote stuff I read, on the other end of the phone and happy to talk.

This was an attitude that seemed to be shared by many of the games companies themselves. Three or four years after the Spectrum was released I upgraded to the Commodore 64 with its colour palette and dynamic sound. Over the years I’d accumulated many games on the Spectrum that were now on the Commodore 64. After ringing round the companies that made the games I had most of them replaced in the other format for free. At the time I’d assumed this is what companies would do, now I realise that it was a strange but great response.

The Spectrum started my 30 year obsession with video games and my most consistent interest. It’s been a strange evolution in terms of technology and quality but has been universally good.

And to finish, my all time favourite Spectrum game was Combat Lynx, I’m not sure why but it had exact combination of freedom and helicopters that was all I wanted from a game.

It’s worth following Kebablog via Twitter today, he’s spending the day playing (or attempting to load) as many games as he can. He seems to have a lot of them.


Posted in Games | Comments (2)

2 Responses to “ZX Spectrum”

  1. Bobbobob Says:

    Great post Daz. I must have been a wee bit too young to be phoning up the Crash office, but my experience is much the same. I once spent hours typing out a program into this beast that I think was called ‘train’ or something. The result was a very boring tunnel effect graphic and a barely passable choo-choo sound effect. Great days!

    Well done on the swapping the format on the games… It was a very different club to be in back then.

  2. trav28 Says:

    I think the game you confused with 3D Monster Maze was “Escape”.


    I always had a soft spot for “Knight Lore” and some of the Level 9 adventures 🙂

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