I came across this article from BBC News about the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and how it is now 25 years old. The Spectrum was an affordable home computer popular in the UK and Ireland in the days before PCs came to dominate. You hooked it up to your TV in a similar way to today’s game consoles. It came with 48KB of memory, an 8-bit Z80 processor, and a built-in BASIC interpreter. It had 16 colours, sound, and eventually had a large library of games which you would load from cassette tapes. It was brilliant
Friends of my family had a son that got a Sinclair ZX-81 – the precursor to the Spectrum. This had a whole 1KB of memory, a flat membrane keyboard, and the built-in BASIC interpreter so you could type in programs line by line. I got my own ZX-81 soon thereafter, and cut my programming teeth on it with the help of the simple programs provided in the manual. When the Spectrum came out a short while later, I just had to get it. I can still remember the smell of it when I took it out of it’s box
It’s hard to over-estimate the impact of the Spectrum – not just on me, but on the UK computer game industry. The Spectrum was as much about creating the games as playing them with it’s focus on programming. The manual was a good primer on BASIC, and once that was mastered you could delve into the depths of Z80 machine code programming. Magazines would publish games that readers had sent in – often requiring you to type in lines & lines of machine code instructions in hex, and if you got one wrong it would crash when you went to run it, and you would have to start typing it in all over again (unless you were smart and had saved the code to tape first!). It’s funny to think that I owe my livelihood in a large part to the same programming language I began with over 25 years ago
As for the gaming side of things, my adolescence was filled with time spent battering that rubber keyboard attempting to make Daley Thompson run a bit quicker to win the decathalon, cheering on tiny stick men that played out the highlights of matches in Football Manager as I made my way up the divisions, and fought and traded my way across the galaxy in Elite – still one of my favourite games ever! There were many, many more games, some of them not so good. But the good ones were typically really good. I think this was because the limits of the machine meant that there wasn’t flashy graphics and 5.1 surround sound, so gameplay was really important. None of the games could look so good that it didn’t matter so much if it was crap to play.
And now, the legacy of the Spectrum lives on. Rare, the studio that has created games such as Goldeneye 007 for the N64, and Viva Pinata for the XBox 360 (and many more) began life creating some of the best Spectrum games. Founded in 1982 by the Stamper brothers, it went on to create chart toppers for the Spectrum throughout the 80s, and followed those up with games for various Nintendo platforms, before being acquired by Microsoft in 2002 for US$377 million. Earlier this year, the Stampers announced they were leaving Rare to pursue other interests.
And now, the circle is complete. You can now download an updated version of Rare’s first Spectrum game Jetpac as a XBox Live Arcade game Jetpac Refuelled. It includes the original game, as well as a new HDified version with 128 levels. I had to buy it, and it brought back memories of trying to get a big enough score to send in to CRASH magazine by sellotaping down the fire key and positioning my spaceman in just the right place on one of the levels where he was safe, but would continue to kill the aliens – while I went downstairs for dinner
All this, from a small black box with rubber keys.