A brief history of Sinclair’s classic machine intertwined with my nerdy life.
If you’re not familiar with 1980’s computers or have never lived in the United Kingdom during that time then I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d never heard of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
Created by engineers lead by Clive Sinclair at Sinclair Research, the ZX Spectrum was the third ZX computer to be released.
The first was the ZX80 followed soon after by the ZX81, a machine I had when I was around six. This was the machine that started my love of computers.
To a six-year-old little boy, this was the future. It was astounding despite only producing blocky black and white graphics with no facilities for sound.
The successor to the ZX81, codenamed the ZX81 Colour and ZX82 was finally launched in 1982 as the ZX Spectrum.
The original and classic ZX Spectrum.
The original machine had 16K of RAM with an upgraded machine also available with 48K of RAM. Purchasers of the original machine could buy DIY kits to upgrade their memory or even send their computer back to Sinclair for it to be done.
At a time when computers were limited to offices and laboratories and costing upwards many hundreds of pounds, the ZX Spectrum was released at a ridiculously low cost of £125 (16K) and £175 (48K). Sinclair would later lower the 16K ZX Spectrum’s price to the magic selling point of £99.
I will always remember my first ZX Spectrum. It was the run up to Christmas, sometime in the mid-1980s, and I was a huge fan of the animated television show M.A.S.K. (Mobile Armoured Strike Kommand)
M.A.S.K. was the story of a team of men who fought crime with specialised vehicles which could change their characteristics. For example, I already had M.A.S.K. motorcycle that could change into a helicopter.
What I really wanted that year was one of the larger M.A.S.K. vehicles, Rhino. A large purple American truck that split into separate vehicles and featured a command centre and missile launcher.
If I had this, would I have become the nerd I am today?
I kept telling all my friends at school I was getting it as my parents, as I recall, sort of agreed with me.
However, in the last few days before Christmas, I have a memory of travelling into town with my father. I don’t remember if he gave me the choice or he simply stated that we were purchasing my main Christmas present for that year.
Together we went to the shops whereupon he purchased my ZX Spectrum+.
The original ZX Spectrum whilst having its own distinct look with the fondly remembered rubber keys that many described as feeling like dead flesh, had a cosmetic upgrade towards the end of 1984. This was the ZX Spectrum+
The internal hardware was unchanged but the new casing was stronger with injection moulded plastic keys. A new feature on this model was the reset button. To reset the original ZX Spectrum required unplugging the power lead and then reseating it.
Same internals but with a new skin. The ZX Spectrum+
I remember all my school friends asking me the following January if I received Rhino and were quite disappointed when I told them of my new computer.
Compared to the ZX81, the ZX Spectrum had 16 colour graphics (8 colours with a dark and light variant of each) and sound capabilities.
One of the fondly remembered features of the ZX Spectrums graphics was the “colour clash”. Put simply if two different coloured characters on a video game touched, one colour would override the other making them both the same colour.
This was one of the ZX Spectrum’s charms but programmers soon learnt of ways to get past this hardware limitation.
The range of programmers was large and diverse. This new computing scene caused by the launch of such a cheap computer inspired people across the UK.
Not only were professional software companies being launched but school children were also getting in on the act in their own homes.
For example, the founders of Rare, the once Nintendo exclusive software developers, started their careers with the ZX Spectrum. Codemasters was also started in this era with brothers Richard and David Darling writing games for the ZX Spectrum as well as the Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC 464.
Many of the ZX Spectrum’s classic games were written by people at home who sent to work to publishing houses to try and get their work sold all over the country.
What also helped the computer become a huge success was the range of computer games available. Since the ZX Spectrum’s launch in 1982, there have been over 24,000 software titles released!
Every week, I used to frequent John Menzies (large chain newsagent store – long gone) and spent ages searching through all the games to see which one to purchase next.
The brand-new games were £10-£15. The problem was, just because they were expensive, it didn’t make them great games.
The bottom end of the market were the budget games which were priced at either £1.99 or £2.99. At such a low cost, my pocket money meant I could buy new games practically every week and quite often did.
If you were patient enough, the expensive games were eventually re-released as budget games. A much cheaper gamble with your pocket money. Of course, there were also three main ZX Spectrum magazines to help you discover which new games were worth buying.
I regularly bought Crash Magazine which primarily focused on games, the others were Your Sinclair and Sinclair User. Towards the end of the ZX Spectrum’s life, these magazines started to have cover mounted cassettes which contained a couple of games and maybe a playable demo of an upcoming new game.
As time passed and the 8-bit machine era was coming to an end, these magazines battled each other in what was dubbed the “cover tape wars”. Each magazine tried to cram more free games onto the included cassette to entice the shopper into buying the magazine.
As the list of games on the tapes grew bigger and bigger, the magazine content reduced in comparison. The final issue of Crash that I bought had a lot of free games but the magazine itself was almost a pamphlet by that point.
Amassing a collection like this was so cheap and easy.
Back in the ZX Spectrum’s prime, the range of games in the shops was simply staggering. Whilst there were original titles, many companies caught onto the idea of licensing television shows and films and creating games based upon them.
It was surprising to see how low companies went to grab any licence they thought would bring the money rolling in. Can you believe they created games based on Minder, EastEnders and usually the most popular BBC quiz game show at the time?
The most popular arcade games were converted to the home computers and sometimes it was simply astounding how they managed to fit such large colourful games into the limited 48K memory of the ZX Spectrum.
Notable mentions must go to some of my favourites. The classic first person shooter, Operation: Wolf, was superb and despite completing it, I’d always come back for another blast.
The game only lasts fifteen minutes, but what fun those fifteen minutes are!
Chase H.Q. a racing game where you play as a pair of police cops in a Porsche. To apprehend the suspect, you would have to repeatedly ram their car until they pulled over.
When the suspect was in site, the sirens would turn on and I played the game so much, including an un-winnable demo that came with a magazine, that my parents became sick of the noise and often asked me to turn it off!
Can you imagine listening to this all day Christmas day? My parents had to!
Robocop was probably one of the bestselling games for the ZX Spectrum and was published by Ocean Software. Following the plot of the film, you play as Robocop trying to find out who you were and who killed you.
As with a lot of Ocean film licences, the game was filled with a mixture of platform levels, puzzle sections and basic first-person shooter levels.
The game even features digitised speech from the film!
In 1989 after seeing Tim Burton’s adaptation of Batman, I became a huge fan of the character. The ZX Spectrum had no less than three licensed Batman games.
The first, simply entitled Batman, was a 3D isometric puzzle game that featured a squat little fat Batman. The Bat-plane had been split into seven pieces and you had to solve the puzzles and find them all.
You can complete the game in half an hour!! What was I doing wrong?
Secondly was Batman: The Caped Crusader featuring two separate adventures. Side one pitted you against the Joker, whilst side two featured the Penguin.
In this 2D side-scrolling adventure game, each room was much like its own separate comic panel. When you entered a new room, the panel would overlay the old one.
I’d forgotten how cool that Batman sprite was, great animation!
Finally, Ocean Software nearly always bought the biggest licenses and in 1989 they produced Batman: The Movie. Featuring the same game layout as Robocop, this game had you platforming in Axis Chemicals, driving the Batmobile and figuring out which makeup products combined created the Joker’s deadly Smilex poison.
I remember applying a poke to Batman: The Movie. This was a way of inserting code into the machine’s memory to cheat in a game. This particular poke froze all enemies when they tried to climb a ladder.
This was working great all the way through until the very last second of the game. The Joker is on a rope ladder dangling from a helicopter. The computer tries to freeze him ala the poke code. The game’s code didn’t like that and the computer froze! Serves me right for cheating!
I played this so much but never completed it.
There were so many great games, Exolon, that I could write for ages, Renegade (and Target: Renegade), this article would become, Turbo Esprit, prohibitively too long. The Great Escape (okay I’ll stop now.)
Halfway through my years as a ZX Spectrum owner, Sinclair upgraded the machine again to include amongst other tweaks, a 128K RAM upgrade as well as a new sound chip.
My friend Yuan bought round his new 128K ZX Spectrum and I immediately became jealous of the upgrades. It may not sound like much today but back then the changes made a big difference to some games.
128K enhanced games primarily featured better music and sound effects. Also, the memory increase meant that a multi-load game could be loaded into memory in one session.
Many large 48K games required you to load the game in sections from the tape as you progressed. If you died, you would have to rewind the tape and load the first level all over again. Owners of 128K machines wouldn’t suffer this drawback.
When my father saw this new upgraded ZX Spectrum he asked me questions about the machine and why I thought it was better.
Lo and behold, the next Christmas I found myself as a proud owner of the ZX Spectrum 128K+2.
It lost a lot of its charm now Amstrad took over but its whats on the inside that counts.
By now, Sinclair had been bought by Alan Sugar’s company Amstrad. The ZX Spectrum was repackaged in a grey case featuring a built-in tape deck, labelled the “datacorder”, for loading games like Amstrad’s own computer, the CPC464.
This was the machine to see me through to the end of my ZX Spectrum gaming days. Towards the end, it almost received a significant upgrade.
Technology was moving fast and PC’s were using 3½ inch floppy drives to store data. One company, whose name I forget, developed an interface which enabled you to connect a floppy drive to the ZX Spectrum.
The interface featured a small red button which upon being depressed dumped the ZX Sectrum’s memory contents into a file on the floppy disk. The benefits are obvious, the ability to load a game in thirty seconds rather than wait for a tape which could take three minutes plus.
But the ZX Spectrum’s life by this point was practically over. New more powerful 16-bit computers in the form of the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST were making waves.
This was when I remember my father giving me the choice in the run up to Christmas.
You can have your ZX Spectrum disk drive interface or you can have an Atari ST.
That Christmas I said goodbye to my faithful ZX Spectrum and embraced the 16-bit era.
It’s hard to believe that the little black machine with its rainbow stripe is 35 years old already (or that I’m 41!).