25 years ago this week, the ZX Spectrum launched

Comment, Flashback, Game On

25 years ago this week, the ZX Spectrum launched

I was introduced to the ZX Spectrum by long-time, on-off family friend, Alan Green in late 1982. I’d go round to Alan’s house and sit in the corner of his lounge, where he had the Spectrum hooked up to a portable tv, and play the early games for it with him.

Alan always tried to get me interested in programming for it, too, saying I should work my way through the manual, which had examples and an index of every command that could be accessed from the Spectrum’s rubber multi-function keypad. Initially I gave that kind of thing a wide berth, as playing games was so much more fun than all the heavy duty stuff.

By the time I got my own Spectrum for Xmas 1983 I was right into it, though, writing loads of little programs in Sinclair Basic – most of which would draw random circles on the screen, or ask you for your name before PRINTing it out in random colours (Or pseudo-random, in the case of the Spectrum – there’d always be an emergent rainbow pattern that formed if you filled the screen up with “random” colours).

It’s hard to believe it’s 25 years since I’d regularly wander into John Menzies (a large stationary / newsagent / bookshop / music store), approach the keypad of a Spectrum on display and type;

20 GOTO 10

Then I’d stand back and admire my handiwork scrolling across the screen until a sales assitant would wander around and reset the machine.

Sinclair Basic was never going to lead to anything great in terms of gaming, though – I typed in a few of the listings from magazines and they were abysmal if they ran at all when I was done. I tried my hand at machine code, but at the age of eleven or twelve, as I was at the time, it became clear that I wasn’t going to be following in the footsteps of Matthew Smith! (creator of Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy)

Worryingly, I almost sold my Spectrum in 1986 – the reason being that I discovered the computers onboard Airwolf were Commodore Plus 4’s, making me really want a Commodore Plus 4, despite the fact that it had but a fraction of the games available to the Spectrum. Putting an advert in the local newsagents for my Spectrum, but not receiving any interest I avoided making a very bad decision.

By the time I got my Spectrum +2 for Xmas 1987 it was mainly games I played, knocking up the occasional little program to keep my hand in, but generally spending my time playing the likes of Spyhunter or Tomahawk, the Apache helicopter simulation. I spent a stupid amount of time on Tomahawk, actually – it was the Airwolf connection at work there – just flying around, pretending to be a helicopter pilot.

Now it’s a given that games are immersive – you can race on the streets, raid the tombs, play in the Superbowl, manage a football team, wreak war upon the gods, grand theft some autos, or do whatever your heart desires because, the chances are, there’s a game out there that’s so graphically sumptuous and rich in audio effects that it’s just like being right there.

But, back in the day, the graphics and the audio on the Spectrum were so poor that you had to make a larger investment on the part of your own imagination. When you played The Hobbit and it said “pale bulbous eyes are following you”, you couldn’t see them – it was a text adventure with limited graphics, but the thought of the pale bulbous eyes following you was enough to lend the game some atmosphere.

Which is quite possibly why I remember the time spent on my Spectrum so fondly. It might have been a million miles away from the PlayStation 3, never mind 25 years, but for nearly ten years, with a bit of help from my own imagination to bridge the reality gap, the Spectrum helped me live a life less ordinary.

The end came once I got my Amiga 500+ – it was game over for my Spectrum +2 the moment I saw Grand Prix, never mind Another World or anything that came later on my Amiga 1200. Once you’re introduced to the next generation of sound and graphics it’s very hard to go back. Which applied equally to my Amiga 1200 when it was followed by my PlayStation, and my PlayStation when it was succeeded by my PS2.

None of the worthy successors occupy the same warm place in my heart that my original Spectrum and +2 do, though. Happy anniversary, and thanks for the memories.