ZX Spectrum at 40: a look back

ZX Spectrum at 40: a look back

On the 23rd April 1982, Cambridge-based Sinclair Research unveiled its latest product and 40 years later, its influence and place in history cannot be overstated. Without the ZX Spectrum, the games industry – at least in the UK and certain other European countries – would certainly not be the behemoth it is today.

Looking back from a world of smartphones and Xboxes, it’s astonishing that such a commercially successful product could have happened with this unglamorous and flawed piece of equipment. Yes, I’m a Speccy fan through and through, cut me and I bleed red, yellow, green and cyan, in that order. But even I readily admit that the home computer had its drawbacks, its imperfections and its idiosyncrasies. In truth, the ZX Spectrum was far from perfect; but that was all part of its appeal. Oh, and the fact it was cheap.

Very cheap, actually, when compared to rivals of the time. Aware that home computing was a dreadfully expensive business, out of the reach of the average family, Sir Clive Sinclair devised a plan to produce a low-budget micro that, like the television and VCR, would form a central part of a family’s entertainment – and open up computing to everybody. The Spectrum’s great rivals, the Commodore 64 and BBC Micro Model B both retailed for over £300, almost £1000 in today’s money; when the Sinclair computer appeared in 1982, it was priced at just £125 for the 16K version with another fifty quid getting you a whopping 48K. To many families, often working on the assumption that computers were a passing fad and ‘just for kids’, it was a no-brainer.

The original 48K Spectrum complete with rubber keyboard
The original 48K Spectrum complete with rubber keyboard. Credit: Graeme Mason, Sinclair Research.

The price enabled Sinclair to get a foothold into homes around the UK and Europe; unfortunately for the man behind the machine, it wasn’t for the broad and noble purposes he was hoping for. As with most other computers of the time, it was the games that sold the ZX Spectrum, and in these pre-Xbox and PlayStation times, the Sinclair computer represented the best and cheapest way for kids to play videogames at home. One such wide-eyed youngster was Martyn Carroll, former editor of Retro Gamer magazine and a games journalist specialising in the vintage Micro. “[The Spectrum] was less expensive than most computers at the time, yet in many ways it was more capable,” he says. “The sound was awful and the colours clashed, but in the right hands the Spectrum was a contender, a diminutive underdog that punched above its weight.”

The first issue of Retro Gamer magazine naturally featured plenty of Spectrum-related content.
The first issue of Retro Gamer magazine naturally featured plenty of Spectrum-related content. Credit: Retro Gamer Mag.

Carroll makes a couple of excellent points here. Despite – maybe, because – of its flaws, the Spectrum grew into an outstanding success, eventually selling five million units. The computer’s distinctive rubber keys became the object of mirth for rivals, often derogatorily dubbed ‘dead flesh keys’. And there was the attribute clash, that unfortunate bleeding of colours that could render games a chaotic multicoloured mess. Yet Spectrum fans, soon to become part of the bedroom coder culture that exploded in the early-to-mid Eighties, often found a way around the computer’s drawbacks, producing results that were previously thought impossible. Early platform legend Manic Miner brought the wonder of in-game music; vast titles such as Halls Of The Things and Avalon introduced the concept of intelligent, off-screen enemies and even the attribute clash was thwarted with clever coders able to devise ways to bypass the effect. “I loved programming on the Spectrum,” recalls Jim Bagley, author of technically-stunning games such as Midnight Resistance and Cabal. “So what if it didn’t have hardware scrolling, sprites or a SID chip – it only made us better coders as we had to think more into what and how we could do something. It was a challenge.”

While not totally original – it was inspired by the old Atari game, Miner 2049er – Manic Miner was undoubtedly a game that sold thousands of ZX Spectrums.
While not totally original – it was inspired by the old Atari game, Miner 2049er – Manic Miner was undoubtedly a game that sold thousands of ZX Spectrums. Credit: Matthew Smith, Bug-Byte.

The accessibility of the computer, plus its rapidly-rising user base, was quickly establishing it all over the UK. Games came on cheap, mass-produced cassettes, a format recognisable to most people thanks to its use in the music industry. Electronic hardware stores such as Currys and Dixons sold the computer while the shelves of all manner of retailers, from Boots to WH Smiths, were stuffed with Spectrum games. Thousands of eager computer fans studied listings of code in specialist magazines, spending hours typing the numbers and symbols into their Spectrum just to play a rudimentary Space Invaders clone – if it even worked at all. For many kids growing up in the Eighties, all they wanted was a ZX Spectrum, and one such early enthusiast was LBC broadcaster James O’Brien. “I was saving up for a ZX81 when the Spectrum came out, and I had to have one,” he recalls. “My dad promised to match whatever I saved, but when I took him to Currys and showed him that he could play Chess against it, he renegotiated and we got one.” The famed axiom was working its magic already: it’s for educational purposes, honest.

Psion Chess, the Spectrum version of the classic board game that persuaded James O’Brien’s father to invest in a ZX Spectrum.
Psion Chess, the Spectrum version of the classic board game that persuaded James O’Brien’s father to invest in a ZX Spectrum. Credit: Richard Lang, Psion Software.

The industry surrounding the Spectrum and its rivals blossomed, engendering new careers, specialist retail outlets and a publishing industry that quickly realised it was the games that were selling these computers. “Crash [magazine] was the big one,” remembers O’Brien warmly. “It was an incredible magazine, so irreverent and clever. I’d always wanted to follow my dad into news journalism, but I started thinking more about showbiz and opinion pieces because Crash made such a big impression on me.” This is a familiar story that succinctly demonstrates the impact of the ZX Spectrum on a personal level. Says Carroll, “When I launched Retro Gamer back in 2004 there was absolutely no question that the first issue wouldn’t include articles on Sinclair computers and Jet Set Willy. Now, as the Spectrum celebrates its 40th anniversary, I’m still writing about it, talking about it, celebrating it.”

Miner Willy gets his marching orders in the phenomenally popular sequel to Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy.
Miner Willy gets his marching orders in the phenomenally popular sequel to Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy. Credit: Matthew Smith, Software Projects.

OK. I’ve danced around the major weakness in the Spectrum for long enough. Keen to sharpen the price by economising components wherever they could, Sinclair’s chief aim for the Spectrum meant that games were not a priority. Therefore, neither was sound. “Well it was certainly a unique sound!” says Jonathan Dunn, composer of several famous 8-bit tunes. “I don’t think audio was top of the priority list when they were making the Spectrum affordable.” Having grown up adoring the Commodore 64’s brilliant SID chip, Dunn became associated with the AY chip, a far superior dedicated sound chip that came with the latter 128K Spectrum models. “I enjoyed working with the AY chip,” he says. “In some respects it was much easier to make something sound comparatively good to the other stuff out there at the time and I think the melodies came through more.” To begin with, we had to contend with the original Spectrum’s screechy on-off sound. But incredibly, as with attribute clash, canny developers found a way around the limits of the machine, with musician Tim Follin in particular producing some amazing tunes from the primitive beeper.

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Above: Jonathan Dunn’s ZX Spectrum Robocop theme was so catchy, it was even used in this TV advert for electrical goods.

In addition to journalists such as O’Brien and Carroll, there was a whole swathe of people creating games, firstly in their bedrooms, before working directly for software houses or development studios as the games market became more commercially minded in the mid-Eighties. While on a global scale the computer was no match for the Commodore 64, in the UK and much of Europe, the Spectrum was making a huge impact. Working at publisher Quicksilva in the early Eighties was Rod Cousens, today a veteran of Codemasters and Jagex. “The vibe in the computer industry at the time was something akin to a revolution,” Cousens tells me. “And the creative companies of the time – Psion, Bug-Byte, Silversoft and us – all thought we could conquer the world. There was a tremendous camaraderie and it was a very exciting time with young programmers working out of their bedrooms, constantly coming forward with ideas.” As one of the major early software players, Quicksilva knew all about the Spectrum before Cousens finally saw one in its completed form at the Home Computer Fair, Royal Horticultural Halls, London. “The main talking points were the 48K of RAM and the rubber keys!” he laughs. Having left Quicksilva to form Activision’s UK operation, Electric Dreams, Cousens oversaw the production of many more notable Spectrum games before stepping into management and consultancy roles.

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Above: Big budget licences such as this adaptation of sci-fi horror movie hit Aliens came to dominate the Spectrum games market.

The ZX Spectrum was cheap, and it would be hard to argue that its price wasn’t a factor in its success. Once that established user base was set, the platform made solid commercial sense to release games on, ensuring that 48K games continued to dominate, despite the appearance of the superior 128K model in January 1986. And while there were amateur coders and those that used their Spectrum for word processing or accounting, it was really all about the games. “For many gamers it was the first stepping stone that led to the Amiga, Mega Drive, PlayStation and so on,” says Carroll. “But for others, it’s much more than just nostalgia.” When, last year, Sir Clive Sinclair sadly passed away, the outpouring of tributes from people working in IT and engineering was incredible. “They owed their careers to the Spectrum and its forebear, the ZX81,” notes Carroll. “They dabbled, and it opened the door.”

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Above: Kim Justice is just one of the many YouTubers who spreading the love of the Spectrum. Here’s her loving tribute to Sir Clive Sinclair.

Commercially, the Spectrum was a sound investment and a good seller; but that doesn’t explain how so many fell in love with its quirky charms, and still love the computer today. The answer perhaps lies with the relevant context of the time. “Apart from those multiple choice books and clunky consoles, it was the first thing we could do that was truly interactive,” remembers O’Brien. “Communicating with a machine, taking part in stories – it was next level.” While popular in the UK, the Atari 2600, and more pertinently, its cartridge-based games, were expensive. The price, and ubiquity of Spectrum games helped its popularity, especially when budget companies such as Mastertronic and Atlantis entered the market. “I loved Atlantis!” exclaims O’Brien. “They were budget, so I could actually buy their releases with my pocket-money. Getting an [full price] Ocean game was strictly birthday and Christmas.” Like O’Brien, I loved budget games, and especially the freedom and interactivity of text adventures, even though I seldom progressed far. Imaginative, clever and often abstruse, their appeal can be baffling today. “Even without the inevitable crashes and failures to load, the gameplay was so slow,” notes O’Brien. “But at the same time it all felt so immediate and exciting.”

Budget titles such as this provided Spectrum owners with games for just £1.99 a pop.
Budget titles such as this provided Spectrum owners with games for just £1.99 a pop. Credit: David Jones, Mastertronic.

By the early Nineties, the Spectrum was hopelessly outclassed and in 1992 production finally ceased. Latent influence aside, the rest of the decade passed relatively quietly for the computer, a handful of dedicated followers continuing to create software and emulators for modern platforms. Then, in 2004, with the publication of the first issue of Retro Gamer magazine, the Spectrum began to gain in popularity once more as a mass of gamers wallowed in the nostalgia of their first games machine – sorry, Sir Clive, but to most of us, that’s what it was. As I type, issue two of the Spectrum Next, a new Spectrum for a modern age, is overcoming supply problems and hoping for a release soon; Crash magazine is back in WH Smiths; and multiple software houses such as Bitmapsoft and Cronosoft are still releasing games, on cassette, for the mighty ZX Spectrum.

The Next Generation of the ZX Spectrum – The Spectrum Next.
The Next Generation of the ZX Spectrum – The Spectrum Next. Credit: Graeme Mason, Sinclair Research.

And of course, the Spectrum is endlessly discussed, its games adored and discovered on social media platforms every day. “It’s because so many people have wonderful childhood memories of playing games on it and cherish those good times,” notes veteran Spectrum programmer Jim Bagley. “It’s like a really good friend, it gave you great times and was always ready to make you happy.” Like many of our childhood memories, the Spectrum is revered today precisely because of this, and the added knowledge that many of us – me included – would probably not be doing what we do today without the eccentric and undeniably British invention. “The current gaming market has its roots in that era and owes its existence to that time,” observes Cousens. “The design, size and its games made the Spectrum compelling at the time. It was also a great medium of expression and was affordable. And it was British.”

The freedom of expression, the ability to not only play and interact, but also to create, is the core tenet that fired so many imaginations back in the Eighties, and is possibly the leading explanation for the Spectrum’s success. Says O’Brien, “It kept us company during the notoriously tricky business of adolescence and let us escape into other people’s imaginations in ways that had never been possible before. I thought it was the future.”

Well, I’ve got news for you, James – you were right.

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“Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching