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Posted by pickassoreborn
Angry Jeff is Angry.

I have to admit that I'm a huge fan of the Bombcasts - like you, no doubt. I hike to work with a grin as fast food restaurants are critiqued, anecdotes are exchanged regarding San Francisco's terrible amenities and even - shock - videogames are recounted by the fine folk who write for this very site. They are very entertaining folk and have the patter down to a rhythm which also compliments the very foot fall which propels me to my place of work on a typical rainy English morning. Mostly the sound waves which fill my ears are entertaining – until Giant Bomb’s very own Jeff Gerstmann started last week on some kind of unprovoked attack on the humble ZX Spectrum.

The gist of this rant caught me a little off guard; normally I would consider Jeff someone who loves videogames and videogame systems. They’re all great, right? They help us forget that one day we’ll probably leave this planet screaming in some kind of real-life fiery wreck probably brought on by too much Burnout Paradise “training”. Jeff has many systems – we’ve seen the large storage boxes to confirm this. Yet the anti-Spectrum tirade – which has continued in this week’s Bombcast – strikes me as rather unfair.

The blanket exclamation, for instance, that “all games on the ZX Spectrum are unplayable and shit” is the sort of comment you’d find on the most vitriolic of gaming forums. I learnt a long time ago to stay well away from any of that talk. I have owned many systems in the past and they’ve all been great in the ways they’ve been designed. I guess that my nostalgia of the ZX Spectrum is something I hold precious because it felt magical to go to the houses of schoolmates and have a cuppa while we waited for Trashman to load on the iconic 48k Spectrum (true story).

I was lucky enough to get my hands on a ZX Spectrum +2 – a later generation of Spectrum which not only had 48k emulation, but a built-in tape recorder and proper bloody keys too. No more having to jab at rubberised keys! Many a rainy day was spent with the +2 – I was always envious of a mate of mine who owned a +3, which had a disc drive instead of a tape recorder. Loading took seconds rather than minutes, though I think a lot of my pixel art training came from staring at loading screens to see how the artists would trick the eye with the limited 16 colour palette and attribute clash avoidance.

I have meandered down Memory Alley there. Allow me to back up and head back onto Unprovoked Attack Avenue… ah, that’s better. Now I know that Jeff is a Commodore 64 lover and I do remember there was a huge rivalry between the two systems on the school playground; maybe this is colouring his extreme opinion of the Spectrum. I need to address the commentary regarding the lack of games as well as – and this is also unfair and mentioned in this week’s Bombcast – the lack of any decent game music on the Spectrum too.

I know this blog post won’t be changing Jeff’s mind any time soon, but I do want this to be not only a voice of defence for something which gave me a lot of gaming memories and pleasure over my early formative teenage – and gaming – years, but also I want to highlight some bloody good games for the Spectrum which you really need to check out if you get the chance. It saddens me that some people who want to delve into emulation may be put off by Angry Jeff’s Angry Opinion. Please don’t be put off. Although many of these games are available on other systems, I appreciated them on the Spectrum – and the Spectrum version was just as playable as any other version.

Total Eclipse

I remember getting this for my birthday as my Dad didn’t really take me out to do fun stuff much; I think maybe my Mum somehow blackmailed him to take me on the bus to the game store and to pick it up. I think a very positive Your Sinclair review also pushed me in the right direction. Plus I bloody love Egyptian pyramids, mummies – all the good stuff.

Total Eclipse used a technology by Incentive Software called Freescape – essentially early 3D first seen in Driller. Monochromatic shaded polygons were low in detail, but gave my imagination an excuse to fill in the gaps. The game takes place in Egypt at the turn of the last century – you start the game outside a huge pyramid with a biplane parked up and an ominous slow meeting of sun and moon in the sky. You had a few hours to enter the pyramid and stop whatever was inside it from destroying the planet through a destructive total eclipse – hence the game’s name.

The pyramid itself was full of traps, mummies, secret rooms and treasure – also unusually was the fact the game couldn’t be easily mapped on paper due to the 3D nature of the pyramid itself. Mapping is a lost art-form in gaming; I used to love drawing maps on graph paper of other videogames. Heck, it kept me off the streets. Total Eclipse was a brutal game – the pyramid was silent exepct for your beating heart and sudden starling events which only made that heart beat even faster. You also had to keep an eye on your heart rate – too many encounters meant you would have to wait to calm down using a keyboard prod to speed up time. Alas, the speeding up of time gave you a foreboding feeling that you were burning through those precious two hours to the planet’s destruction.

Chase HQ

Jeff mentioned the lack of arcades in the UK in the days of the Spectrum – although not strictly true as there were arcades, but spread out vast distances. Arcade machines would also be accessible at my local swimming baths, though Ocean Software was responsible for many arcade conversions for a hungry audience. I do remember some of the beautiful box art from Mr. Bob Wakelin (You can actually buy art from his site) and one piece of artwork I loved was that on the Chase HQ box.

I think I was spurred into a purchase from – once more – another favourable Your Sinclair review. The loading screen was also a joy to examine as it recreated the super-sexy box art too – quite an achievement with the limited graphical capabilities on offer. I always thought that these limits encourage creativity. The version I had though – the +2 version – had some pretty impressive (for the time) digitised speech.

The whole game was a very impressive achievement for the Spectrum – a pretty accurate lo-fi recreation of the arcade machine, the game put you in the shoes of a cop team whose speciality was high speed pursuit of crims followed by a barrage of sideswipes and shunts as you tried to smash his car into submission. There was a lot to like about the game at the time – the handling was pretty special considering the limitations; I think this was my first “proper” driving game. It also had a lot of personality and heart too; there were likeable characters and some great presentation – I watched those CHASE HQ letters dance on the title screen for an unhealthy time, unwittingly soaking in much animation knowledge.

Head Over Heels

This was a particularly striking game which appeared quite early on in the Spectrum’s lifecycle. It was striking in that the game was presented in isometric 3D – already injecting a sense of depth and direction that early Spectrum games lacked – but also the art style was particularly beautiful in its monochromatic limits. Pixel art these days doesn’t even compare to what was being done in the past with such limitations.

In the game itself, you controlled Head and Heels, or Head or Heels. The character sprites of these guys were adorable – one being (if I remember correctly) a dog head with winged arms, the other guy was mostly feet. These visual traits lead to what could be done with them in gameplay – Head could glide distances with those crazy winged arms, while Heels could jump higher. The varied environments lent themselves to this, though I think I remember at some point in the game, you could both be combined together and get both those traits.

The killer feature of the game was the way you could swap between characters in their different locations – I often found myself getting stuck as Heels on one tricky puzzle, then swapping to Heads in another part of the world to attempt the puzzles there. Plus that chunky typeface? Beautiful.

Atic Atac

Before Rare, there was Ultimate – Play The Game. These guys were around in the very early days of the ZX Spectrum, though gave us a lot of great videogames including Jetpac – a title which Jeff dissed, but turns out it’s not a crap game after all. Ultimate gave us some great titles – all of them oozing with personality and a specific look; you could just tell you were playing an Ultimate game; Knightlore, Sabre Wulf and Trans Am come to mind, but the game I truly loved was Atic Atac.

It’s a bit of a classic, this one. It also felt in its day that it was a game which was challenging you to get it done in three lives or be invoked with the shame of failure. Essentially the game took place in a large castle with dungeons and the Atic of the title. The aim of the game was to escape – you had to collect three pieces of the ACG key and assemble this in the Great Hall of the castle. Only then could you get out.

When you begin each game, you had the choice of three different characters – Wizard, Knight or Serf. This decision was important as each character allowed you to navigate the castle through different short-cuts. As well as picking up pieces of the key, you also needed to pick up objects which could be used to kill some of the monstrous bosses which roamed the dungeons; so a spanner could easily dispatch Frankenstein, a crucifix to get rid of Dracula, etc. All the while, you were reminded of your own mortality through one of the cutest health gauges in videogames – a delicious roast chicken which slowly turned into a skeleton and the loss of one of those three precious lives.

Atic Atac was a mapper’s game, although one which was tough to map due to those staircases which you used to traverse levels. More expert gamers simply memorised the map with their own favourite character. Me? Serf. There’s something appealing about walking though large barrels of booze.


I have particular fond memories of this game due to the appealing chunky sprites and the explosions of colour; set on a distance planetoid, you played a lone space dude who had to travel from left to right of the screen negotiating enemies with your collection of guns or rocket grenades. There was something immensely appealing about being able to destroy everything on screen with such a vast selection of multi-coloured sprites and explosive white noise.

Further on into the game, you were also offered an exo-suit armed to the teeth with more weapons to deal out more multi-coloured laser death to your intergalactic enemies. I think I vaguely remember grabbing this one time and being overtaken with emotions close to those you would expect to find with an illicit flick through your first pornographic magazine. It was bliss.

The game was coded by a chap called Raffaele Cecco – a bit of a developer rockstar of his day, as he also brought us such classics as Cybernoid 2 and Stormlord. All these games felt fun, though they were also complimented by a solid and appealing art style too. I really miss playing his games.

So there you go. The ZX Spectrum, ladies and gentlemen. It isn't the demonic electronic bastard that Jeff thinks it is. It hasn't raped any kittens as far as I can tell. It gave me a lot of joy and happy gaming memories and looking back at those YouTube videos above was a delicious tonic indeed. One more thing! Music on the ZX Spectrum is actually rather good -

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIlaq_i6UmM – Robocop

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJxnoyA64TI - Trantor

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9b9XjxK2RJc – LED Storm

Posted by Levius

My dad raves about Lords of Midnight. From what he has told me about it its basically Lord of the Rings cross with Skyrim and a total war game, which sounds awesome. I really need to put more time into the iPad version.

Posted by BaconGames

My impression from the Bombcast was more that Jeff in having the C64 in front of him for comparison, just doesn't understand where the good comes from with that in mind but theorized (albeit with not much supporting evidence) that it was the relative lack of arcades and the programming element of things like the ZX Spectrum and the Amiga that made them compelling. Just to be fair, Jeff has very low opinions of the Intellivision so it's not like he's singling out the Spectrum and the Amiga per se.

However I do think Jeff's impressions were both a product of the games he specifically looked at and the capabilities of the Spectrum relative to what he loves about the C64. Personally they're both lost on me and I chalk up both to early computing craziness (in a good way) but that one was more American and one more British. Then again his enthusiasm for a game like Bruce Lee on the C64 perfectly puts into perspective how he comes to appreciate these specific old games.

Posted by Ninja_Welshman

I loved my Spectrum +2 and still have very fond memories playing it. Renegade and Target Renegade were especially awesome and had amazing music! You have to look at it from Jeff's point of view though. If you had a Comadore 64 and then saw the humble Speccy you would think it was dump.

Edited by Mento

I never had a ZX (though a friend did and goddamn was Chuckie Egg a stitch), but I feel your pain. There was an incidental dig at the Atari ST during Jeff's tirade and that hurt deeper than any barb or arrow ever could. Well, that's probably not true, but I do have a lot of affection for the old thing. A misspent youth filled with hours of Elite and Lemmings and Wizball and Space Crusade will do that to you.

Honestly, I have no idea how he can favor the versions of games on his beloved C64 over their Atari ST/Amiga equivalents, which were unilaterally better looking, took less than forty-five minutes to load and had mouse support (when applicable). All C64 really had over its descendant was better music, which still doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

Nostalgia's one hell of a drug.

Posted by stunik101

I was shocked at what Jeff had to say about the Spectrum too ,i feel he needs to sit down with someone who can show him the best games on the system eg: (atic atac/Lords of midnight/ Dragontorc/ Starquake off the top of my head).

Someone should do a timeline for release dates of software to see what was produced at what time as i feel jeff was comparing very early spectrum games(jet pac)to much later games on other systems.

Posted by Rasmoss
Edited by Drazat

My spectrum 48k was my first home computer and i will allways love it.Kempston joystick x x.Then u upgraded to a 128k +2 happy days.

Posted by sketch

My dad's spectrum was the first piece of technology I really got involved with.

I've been wanting to get one of my own, but I'm a little unsure about buying from eBay.

The good thing about it is you can use any generic tape deck with a headphone socket (or an iPod if so inclined) I want to try and actually complete Hacker. It's just not the same with an emulator.

Posted by kagato

I got my Spectrum +2 128k when i was 5 and played it pretty much non stop until i got my NES years and years later, had many great adventures playing the Dizzy series of games, Semour goes to hollywood, The Untouchables and loads more. I had over 150 tapes, some with the big boxes, some just in the standard casette and i used to love reading Crash, Your Sinclair and CVG when it used to cover the games. Sure it had some issues displaying colour but for the time it was great and allowed me to play games all the way through my childhood.

I dont know who told Jeff that we didnt have arcades because even in Glasgow i had bowling allys and swimming pools that had loads of them, from Streetfighter 2, Final Fight and even Chase HQ we where pretty well covered.

Posted by Bell_End

i grew up playing the sinclair specturm.

i got a 48k when i was 9 and played games like manic minor, jet set willy, nightlore, head over heals, jack the ripper, everyones a wally, skool daze, dizzy, monty mole, finders keepers...

then i upgraded to to the +3 with the built in disk drive. but no real improvement in graphics it just loaded a bit faster and more reliablilly.

god they were shit

Posted by dandead

Can't belive nobody has mentioned Chaos yet...

Easely my favourite Speccy game. in fact it the only one I really play on a regular basis today as I have it on my Andriod phone. It's a Vs. turn based stratgey game where wizards use randomly assaigned spell cards to try and defeat the other wizards. You can summon monsters, weapons and even fortresses to help you win. That said the one thing that people usualy don't get while playing is the "illusion" option. Using this option to summon a creature will bypass the "to summon" percentage and allow you to summon the creature. This creature will act and attack like a standard creature but with one diffrence it can be instakilled with a "disbelive" spell which all wizards have at all times.

Despite it premitive graphics this is defeinatly one thats worth checking out. If you are too lazy to play this VIA emulator there is a free java version of the game here.

Posted by Kieran_ES

The Spectrum was great, and incredibly important for the UK industry in particular. The whole Bombcast chat about it is a great reminder of how different UK and US video-game scenes were, especially in comparison to today. It's a saddening loss, the UK and US (apart from football games) may as well be the same these days.

Just go back to when the last Spectrum anniversary rolled around and look at sites like RPS talking about it (This article, and the comments, are a good representation for anyone who doesn't know much about the Spectrum)

Edited by dandead

Well the thing that the Bombcast crew did not mention was that the main reason for the computers being so popular here in the UK was because EVERYTHING WAS CHEAPER ON THE COMPUTER!

No seriously. A good computer game at the time would set you back £6 to £12. (with a lot of games getting budget releases over time) A Master System game would set you back roughly £20 (with a few exceptions!) while most Nintendo games where released for £40 in 1980's money! (They would eventualy reduce the prices a bit to their credit) It also did not help that at the start of it's launch in the UK you could only buy the bloody thing from chemists like Boots for exanple. People here did not want to pay crazy prices, espeically during a ressesion in the early 80's.

Edited by Limeade_5

Another shout out here for the Spectrum. Somehow, despite the attribute clash problems, games just looked cleaner than their C64, Amstrad or NES equivalents at the time. And let's not forget Rebelstar Raiders / Laser Squad / Rebelstar - along with Chaos, the original X-Com concepts are all here in full. I'd also like to mention Dragontorc / Avalon which is simply epic and Everyone's a Wally which had amazing multi character puzzle solving. Some Ultimate games seem to get forgotten as well - I have fond memories of Sabre Wulf and terrifying memories of the frustration of Underwurlde.

And another thing that gets forgotten: some of these games (as Dandead alluded to) - for example on the Firebird budget label - were only £2-£3. Dizzy and Rebelstar were both priced at 2 quid when they came out.

We'll never change Jeff's mind I suspect but the Speccy will live forever in our hearts!

Edited by EXTomar

Being an American, the ZX Spectrum was one of those mythical beasts like Bigfoot or Loch Ness where people were sure it exists but no one actually touched one. I had always hoped Retronauts would do a ZX Spectrum episode but it got shutdown before that happened and there is always a small hope they talk about it in the resurrected version.

Posted by MikeW1980UK

Commodore 64 is better so, know that.