Happy Birthday, Old Friend

30 years ago today, the ZX Spectrum was born unto an unwitting world. The brainchild of Sir Clive Sinclair, it heralded an age of bedroom coding which contributed to the games industry and the games you see here today. Case in point - the Oliver Twins were two such examples of what some might call "shut ins". Needless to say, these humble tikes helped catapult a pre-pubescent Codemasters to the top of sales charts with their extremely popular Dizzy games. I didn't really rate those games, to be honest. An egg with boxing gloves for hands? Maybe it was that haunting grin, constantly staring at me. I think I still have nightmares about that grin. All 32 pixels of it.
I tinkered with the 48k Spectrums of other people - rich schoolmates who would show off what their parents had bought them. I was a victim of poverty; any opportunity to experience the future was one I grabbed with both hands. In one case, I remember being in the living room of a schoolmate. The unmistakable, unassuming black rectangle on the carpet connected up to a teak-finished cathode ray tube. I remember waiting for a cuppa while watching the hypnotic horizontal lines dance around the screen in time to a rapid blast of bleeps and bloops. The ZX Spectrum wasn't just creating this by itself though. It had help from a humble tape cassette player. It still amazes me that games were stored in such a way. I digress though.
I love pixel art. I think part of that love was from studying the various loading screens which appeared before me. I'd sometimes marvel at how artists got around the Spectrum's limited colour palette. I like to think that those limitations pushed people into making better pieces of art to stare at while games loaded. I also appreciated how the screen built up from black and white before a blast of binary noise heralded a 16 colour rainbow wipe effect, pixels magically coloured in and the long haul of 3 more minutes of noise.
I have extremely fond memories of the ZX Spectrum, but my time came as a young teenager when I got a ZX Spectrum +2 for Christmas. Sinclair had recently been bought by Amstrad - many considered this something of a mistake - though this mistake gave me the opportunity to finally get my hands on what I had experienced when my family was more impoverished. I remember it came with a built-in tape recorder, six games (all on cassette) and a keyboard which actually behaved like a keyboard; I remember being rather put off by the 48k Spectrum's method of making a whole BASIC command appear from one rubbery key prod. It was very liberating; many a day was spent indoors playing games with the mostly-traditional set-up of "Q, A, O, P, SPACE to fire". I would try my hand to coding, typing in many a BASIC programme from magazines or the Usbourne books of the day. I think some of that code soaked in from the sheer exposure I gave to it.
Games were a big part of the ZX Spectrum. Even now I could rattle off some bonafide classics -

  • Atic Atac was a seminal moment in Ultimate- Play The Game's life. Yep, they who are now Rare. There was a lot to like about Atic Atac - big, chunky sprites and a health bar represented by a chicken reduced to a boney carcass. You could choose to be four characters trapped within a huge mansion viewed from above, each character had the ability to pass through a particular collection of short cuts while you assembled a giant key and get out of the mansion. Most games could be mapped with graph paper, though I tried to map Atic Atac before realising it did some very tricky things to prevent an easy mapping experience.
  • Chase HQ blew my mind. I never played the arcade version, but this port was stunning - especially given the limitations of the system. Being a +2 owner, I was treated to speech synth samples of "Let's go, Mr. Driver!" and an improved soundtrack. There is something great about slamming your car into a fleeing suspect, seeing pixel debris leap from the car with each successful hit.
  • Total Eclipse was such an immersive game - it used Incentive's Freescape polygon tech and although it was extremely primitive, my young and imaginative mind filled in the gaps. What I loved about the game was the premise - save the world in two hours. The view from the very start was your biplane to the left, the foreboding pyramid to the right and the beginnings of the eclipse in the sky above. It was fantastic.
I also added to my game collection with the magazines of the time - Your Sinclair, Crash and Sinclair User. I bought all three with hard-earned pocket money, reaping the covertapes for game demos and whole games. I remember fondly one Christmas issue of Crash having two cassettes on the cover - I think Cosmic Wartoad was a fine way to spend a bit of festive leisure time. The magazines also had their own personalities - Your Sinclair (or YS) had tons of humour... it was very Monty Python in tone; Crash was more aimed at the middle classes - like my rich schoolfriends. Sinclair User, on the other hand, was a very loutish kind of magazine. I think all three perspectives helped enrich me somewhat.
I owe a lot to the ZX Spectrum - it give me many years of pleasure and incentive to work in the games industry. 30 years feels like a long time ago, yet the memories are still crystal clear. If you are intrigued by all this, then let me recommend Micro Men to you - the recent(ish) BBC drama chronicaling the spectacular rise and the equally spectacular fall of Sir Clive Sinclair. I salute you, sir.