Saturday, 23 April 2022

Remembering the ZX Spectrum

Thinking about the first video game I ever played, it was probably either Space Invaders at Heanor swimming baths or Phoenix at the Saundersfoot amusement arcade. But the first time seeing and having a go on a computer? That's a difficult one. I can vaguely recall the BBC Micro appearing at primary school with the Derbyshire County Council logo displayed whenever software was loaded up from the five-and-a-half inch floppy discs. Whether that was before or after leaving infants, I'm not sure. But the other front runner was a machine my comparatively more affluent cousins had installed downstairs in the kitchen diner: a rubber keyed 48k ZX Spectrum. I recall seeing it, playing the unofficial Return of the Jedi speeder simulator, Deathchase, and then not showing much of an interest. That was until a couple of years later when everyone had a computer of some description, except for us. And it was many, many years before a computer came my way.

That computer was the aforementioned Speccy, celebrating its 40th anniversary today. For some reason, the cousins gave it to me and no longer did I have to rely on the willingness of friends to let me play on their machines. My brother and I had our own piece of gaming kit at last, and we would certainly have had our money's worth if we'd actually paid for it. This time was early autumn 1989. The Speccy was still doing well sales-wise, but was looking long in the tooth. A plucky underdog versus the brash American bread bin that was the Commodore 64, which arrived in August 1982, and Alan Sugar's CPC range of computers. But against the 16-bit computers, which arrived in the mid 80s, and the Japanese games consoles which were taking their first steps to market dominance in the UK at the time, the Speccy looked ancient and tired. It was easy to look down on and frequently was, but it sparked a revolution.

Until the Sega Megadrive came along, the Spectrum was the best-selling home machine in this country. It was cheap and, more importantly, very cheerful. Games were inexpensive, topping out at around £9.99 in the late 80s (which is what I got my copy of Robocop for). There were hundreds of titles available at any one time on budget release at the £1.99 - £2.99 price points, and even more for the cost of a blank tape and the use of a twin deck recorder. I may have acquired my copy of Commando through such means. And even though the Spectrum was to other machines what the Sinclair C5 was to the Vauxhall Cavalier, the games were where it excelled. Despite its primitive countenance - a palette of seven colours, low memory and feeble sound chip (the last two getting corrected in the 128k Speccy reboot) - playability-wise its titles stood toe to toe with its C64 rival. The aforementioned Robocop and the adaptation of Taito's Chase HQ were two such triumphal moments in the war with Commodore's machine.

In official history the Speccy is a lot of things. The catalyst for the UK's computer industry, and a distillation of Thatcherism's entrepreneurial spirit. Both claims need heavily qualifying. For one, there were rivals aplenty for the Spectrum's share of the market in 1982. Sinclair's business model involved trying to do everything as cheaply as possible to depress cost, which led to significant reliability problems with its earlier ZX81 and the notorious RAM expansion pack that did not fit the port properly. Had the Spectrum not materialised, there was more scope for the barely remembered Oric and Dragon computers to do well. Atari's 8-bit range was present, the Acorn Electron came just under a year after the Speccy, and perhaps a pre-eminent position for the C64 and more elbow room for Amstrad, who suffered from being the last main micro to market, would have been outcomes of the Spectrum's absence. What the Spectrum catalysed, precisely because it was cheaper than its rivals, was the home coding scene that launched hundreds of companies and the careers of thousands of programmers. This would have happened had other machines filled the void, but differently. Some classic games and starts in the industry may never have happened, and the disproportionate clout British coding enjoys now might not be as expansive as it is. Second, we forget that Sinclair Research, previously Sinclair Instrument and Science of Cambridge, was set up as a parachute company in case Clive Sinclair's Sinclair Radionics went belly up. It did, despite being in receipt of state money, and some of the capital that kept the company afloat between 1977 and its dissolution in 1979 went into the side company, which supported the research underpinning the ZX range of computers. In other words, the state part facilitated this Thatcherite success story.

But what is often not mentioned, amid the business-friendly histories of the machine, is its popular cultural impact. Almost immediately there were the subcultures and playground wars, the fanzines and magazines and their loyal readerships. But more than any other machine it generalised the video game as a cultural form. British kids would have had some exposure to computers thanks to the installation of BBC machines in schools, but for those who were not technically minded nor especially interested in programming the Spectrum opened imaginations to entirely new experiences. That's what captivated me, the opportunity to ride a motorbike, pilot a space ship, defend Earth from aliens, race cars, be a hero, and inhabit completely unique spaces with no real world analogues, such as the platform game, the isometric adventure, the puzzler. These are experiences that were new and only possible with the advent of mass computing. As such there probably hasn't been a machine before or since with the sheer range of games, some of which defined and refined genres while others offered weird and unusual experiences not repeated since. The lawn mowing of Advanced Lawnmower Simulator, the teeth cleaning of Molar Maul, the pranking of Skool Daze are just a few of the hundreds of examples.

It was not just the imagination the Spectrum opened, but an imaginary. Technology frequently conditions outlooks and frames perceptions. How many people think about what they see in terms of how something might look on Instagram, or have a brainwave while having a conversation thinking 'that line would work on Twitter'. Millions do. The Spectrum set up (low) standards of what to expect from the limited power of the machine. Games that pushed at those limits and defied them, or in some way captured the character of conversions from arcades or other, more capable machines, butted against and redefined that imaginary. The ethic of technical virtuosity, whether displayed through graphical trickery or sound or solid, dependable game mechanics, has conditioned the video game imaginary generally. Then there is habitus, an inculcation of a whole set of dispositions, aptitudes, doxas, and preferences that simply did not exist before the home micro revolution. The emergence of genres and mechanic conventions within games are key here. Hegemonic were those who tended to replicate arcade games and this remained the case up until the PlayStation era, but other genres that were distant from those experiences were popular and well received. The Football Manager series, the classic space trading/privateer game Elite, and tactical skirmish games like Laser Squad spring to mind. As game types became more refined, players' expectations grew more structured. Playing new games was never a year zero affair with the acquisition of skill and experience, but with that accumulation of gaming knowledge preferences grew stronger, consciously and unconsciously, and in turned conditioned the experiences gamers desired on and after the Spectrum. In other words, the Spectrum was the gateway for millions into a whole set of practices that are a major component of our culture industry today. Most former Speccy owners are now aged between their early 40s and mid 60s, and there's a very good chance most of them have carried on gaming in some form in the years since.

Eventually, my rubber keyed Speccy went back to the cousins. It is still probably boxed up, stuffed with some other tat in a seldom-visited corner of the loft. It went because it was replaced by a 128k. It was a +2a, easily the best looking micro then on the market with a black case, black keys, and a blood red Sinclair logo. Unfortunately, its built in tape deck rendered it very unreliable. Machine number one broke and went back, as did machine number two. They got swapped for a C64 and after similar troubles, they went back twice before getting dumped completely for a Megadrive. The one I still have and works fine after 30 years. Yet even with games ahead of anything on the Speccy, its memory always tugged at me. The fun with JetPac, the sandbox of Rescue, and the frustrations that came with the Speccy - the awful games, the titles that refused to take advantage of the 128k's increased capabilities, and worst of all - waiting 10 minutes for a game to load and it flat out refusing to work. The Spectrum has long gone to silicon heaven, save for a dynamic afterlife among hardcore hobbyists still developing games and retro gamers not keen on the involved experiences a lot of gaming offers today, but it's still structuring popular culture, albeit our nostalgic reflections of what misrepresents itself as a rose-tinted simpler time.

Image Credit


Phil said...

a) Pong, 10p a go, in a cafe near East Croydon station, winter 1979
b) Acorn Atom, jointly owned by the college "micro society", 1980


Phil said...

gave it to me and our spare black and I no longer had to rely

??? Did a "spare black and white portable" get lost in the edit? Weird to think, as I sit at my desk looking at an (irritatingly glare-y) iMac screen, of how the early micros relied on plugging into a TV.

OTOH I am one of those first-gen gamers, and I regularly boot up the PS4 - strictly speaking our now-absent son's PS4, but he hasn't asked for it back yet (& I'm hoping I can at least get through The Last Guardian first). And consoles have never had their own screens, portables apart.

AndyP said...

And, aged 9/10 I first learned how to program on it. Worked out how to create a strobe by tweaking the speed the colour of the screen changed from white to black so my bedroom was like a disco. Until the raspberry pi, no other computer really engaged kids with programming; which is odd considering when the internet exploded.