ZX Factor: Looking Back At The Sinclair Spectrum

Joel Harvey

A lot can change in 35 years.

As a planet can we can go from daily acts of terrorism and threats of nuclear annihilation to… oh. Actually maybe not much can change. In the gaming world though, plenty can change in 35 years. We may have flashy sprites and virtual nonsense these days, but in 1982, we had the basic beauty that is the ZX Spectrum.

To younger eyes today, the ZX Spectrum must look like an early, mis-shapen attempt at a mobile phone. But it was actually Britain’s first foray at producing a gaming-based home computer system.

Home consoles may have been in vogue in the eighties, with Atari and Nintendo ruling the roost. However, with technology expanding in the home computer sector, the keyboard warriors were becoming serious pretenders to the gaming throne of consoles. Over in the US, the Commodore 64 would eventually change the perception of computers from spreadsheet compilers, to proper game stations.

And here in the UK, we had the BBC Micro. Which was lovely and all, but the Micro wasn’t quite the revolution in gaming that home computers needed. The landscape of the UK computer game industry didn’t know it at the time, but there was a Spectrum-shaped void in it. That was until a man named Clive Sinclair came along to fill it.

In April 1982, Sinclair Research (Clive Sinclair’s company) released the ZX Spectrum – the dear, old Speccy – and our grey little gaming nation suddenly had a bit more colour in it. Well, 15 shades of colour at least.

Please Wait. LOADING…

Anyone who remembers the ZX Spectrum, undoubtedly has fond memories of the loading screen. Which is weird when you think about it, because on what other gaming platform has the loading screen garnered its own cult following?

The Spectrum wasn’t like other gaming platforms though, and its unique boot-up – complete with distinct ear-splitting sounds – epitomsed the very character of the machine.

Unlike console alternatives, the ZX didn’t load up games from cartridges. And it didn’t have a floppy disk drive either. No, games on the Spectrum came on a cassette tape. Precious, little cassette tapes.

It’s hard to believe that these bundles of taped joy could hold enough in them to produce an actual computer game, but sure enough, they did. These days it couldn’t feel more retro to load up a game via a tape recorder, but in 1982 it was the norm.

And what games you could load up, too…

The Joy of Specs’ Games

The enduring appeal of the ZX Spectrum came not down to its hardware (lovely as it was), but down to its games. With such a unique platform, came a unique set of games too. Much like the Amiga 500 years after, little-known developers would create games for the computer on next-to-no budgets, or without the backing of big publishers. And because of this DIY attitude to Spectrum game-making (anyone with coding skills could make games on it), there followed a deluge of creative freedom in game development.

We had the joy, and fiendish difficulty, of Matthew Smith’s Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy games. These were the Mario games of the ZX world; veritable classics of the platform genre that defined, and influenced, gaming on the computer for years to come.

Then there was the revolutionary space-adventure game, Elite. This was a ground-breaking title, offering players unique open-world gameplay and pretty spectacular (for the time) wire-frame 3D graphics. Remember, this all came on a cassette tape.

There was more gaming innovation on the Spectrum too, coming in the form of Knight Lore. An isometric platform game which could be considered the early torch-bearer of 3D game design. Knight Lore would prove to be another historic footnoote in gaming history, all thanks to the Speccy.

And who can forget, Dizzy. Everyone’s favourite egg-man (sorry, Robotnik) was defined by his appearances on the Spectrum. The Dizzy series was another glorious addition into the annals of great ZX platformers, and is also noticeable for being one of the first hits of Codemasters’ successful reign as a publishing giant.

There were other games too; Atic Atac, Jetpac, Bomb Jack, and Skool Daze to name a few. Each as unique, and as challenging, as the last. The Spectrum also gave rise to less mainstream gaming genres, such as the text adventure and the management simulation.

These kinds of games could’ve only found an audience on the Spectrum. The computer was the weird outsider in the gaming world; a champion of the underdog and flag-waver for unique gaming experiences. Which was exactly why we loved it.

Crash!

No matter how loved it was though, the Speccy would never find a place in the modern world of gaming. As the eighties turned to the nineties, and 8-bit turned to 16-bit, the Spectrum’s popularity waned. The future of the computer was not helped by Clive Sinclair’s interest in producing a new electric vehicle, the infamous Sinclair C5.

The failure of the C5 – coupled with other misfiring ventures – forced Sinclair Research into financial difficulties, and they sold off their assets to Amstrad in 1985. Attempts were made to release more powerful, disk-based versions of the Spectrum, but to little success. Eventually, production of the original ZX Spectrum would cease altogether in 1992.

But the spirit of the ZX has lived on to this day. Spectrum emulators are widely available on PCs and mobile phones, and communities are continuing to make games for the computer. There’s also been re-releases of the original system, firstly in the form of the ZX Spectrum Vega – a plug-and-play console with classic Spectrum games pre-loaded onto it. And later this year, in the exciting shape of the Spectrum Next. This machine boasts to be the original ZX, but with beefed-up modern features added to it.

We will never forget the greatness of the Speccy then; Britain’s little home computer, which played a massive part in the evolution of gaming.

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