Happy 30th birthday to the ZX Spectrum!

The ZX Spectrum is 30 today, and that's the perfect excuse to wax lyrical about why it was so much greater than the Commodore 64. Anyone who disagrees can meet me at the top of the playing fields after school for a right good kicking.

Stare at that header image for a moment. Fucking beautiful isn’t it. That my friends was the ZX Spectrum+ (Zed-ex, rhymes with Fed-Ex) and this little black plastic machine was my introduction to gaming oh-so-many many years ago, when I was but a wee nipper who thought hi-top trainers and denim was the height of pre-adolescent cool. I was barely out of the foetal stage when the original model, with grey spongy rubber keys and 16kb of RAM, launched in 1982 for the bargain price of £125 British pounds. I might be a grizzled old bugger by Generation Y’s triple-A obsessed standards but I’m not that old. The one I would end up with was the ZX Spectrum+, an injection-moulded plastic dream machine housing 48k of RAM and other gubbins that plugged straight into your telly.

After all these years I can still recall the feel of it, and I don’t mean the way games handled. I mean the physical sensation of the ZX Spectrum itself. Little things like the reset switch, a little plastic nub just under the lip of the keyboard on the middle-right hand side, a mere flick of which sent you instantly back to a stark grey input screen. A blank monochrome canvas onto which you could copy code from a dedicated Sinclair magazine like Your Sinclair or CRASH (every issue of which had beautiful cover art by the legendary Oliver Frey), or write your own programs on. Most of the time you’d just press J followed by two quotes and the return key, then hit play on the tape recorder and wait around ten minutes for your game to load. Time you’d pass by making a cup of tea and mentally preparing yourself for what you’d soon be playing. 8-bit Zen.

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The original Speccy’s rubber keys had the consistency of dead flesh. On mine they were made of  plastic, each with a little bowl-like recess that perfectly cradled the tips of my pudgy pre-teen fingers as I steered Dizzy the egg around Treasure Island and Magic Land. Whenever you pressed them…actually no, that doesn’t do the experience justice. You never had to poke or prod the keys like some cack-handed Commodore 64 owner groping under the sheets in the dark. On the ZX Spectrum+ they gracefully yielded beneath your gentle touch, emitting a click just barely loud enough to be satisfying without being obnoxious. The closest you can get to that with modern keyboards – proper ones, not a flimsy sheet of plastic or some holographic space age wanking machine – is caressing a random key the way you’d softly caress a loved one. By the way, did you know ZX Spectrum owners can drive their romantic partners to paroxysms of pleasure with the slightest touch and are generally better lovers than C64 owners? It’s a scientific fact.

I could go on for hours about the physicality of the machine, such as how it felt when you picked it up – only slightly heavier than your average modern computer keyboard. The angry wide joystick port at the back of the unit filled with gnashing plastic teeth, capped with conductive metal, that could never get a proper grip on anything you plugged into it. My L-shaped Kempston adaptor wobbled unsettlingly if you so much as looked at it yet it never once failed me, if I don’t count the times I deliberately nudged it to make the screen flicker a funky colour. By contrast the “ear” and “mic” sockets (line in and out) for the tape recorder’s cables were tighter than a nun’s arse. Speaking of the tape recorder, who can forget the industrial clunk-click of the play button before it took you on another trip into an 8-colour dreamscape.

Marketed as an affordable home computer intended for serious things like accounts and homework the Speccy bred an entire generation of bedroom programmers, and arguably kick-started the British games development industry single-handed. While the C64 was technically superior the Speccy’s simplicity and low price made it ideal for learning how to make games, and names like Dave “Earthworm Jim” Perry, Jeff “Llamatron” Minter, Julian “X-Com” Gollop, Matt “Manic Miner” Smith, Codemasters and Rare all cut their teeth on this humble machine. The  Spectrum’s limited resources forced programmers to be creative, efficient with their code and to make the best of what they had available to them, resulting in amazing experiences like Mike Singleton’s epic The Lords of Midnight and Knight Lore. Towards the end of the Speccy’s life you could get a clunky awkward version of Street Fighter II running on it, and there’s even a rudimentary Spectrum version of Doom floating around the interwebs.

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The Speccy era was also when British games developed a unique character that was every bit as distinctive as Japan’s, possessing tons of charm, innocence and often an element of the surreal. The kind of weird, quirky stuff coming out of today’s indie scene was the mainstream in the UK during the Speccy’s heyday: something like gravity-flipping indie retro platformer VVVVVV would have been on UK high street store shelves beside Jet Set Willy and Monty Mole. Barmy, beautiful games like these were part of every kid’s games collection, and the people who made them were practically kids themselves. Weirdness and eccentricity was the gaming bread and butter of an entire generation whose artsy titles were the likes of Mel Croucher’s Deus Ex Machina, a selection of mini-games about the seven ages of man narrated by John Pertwee.

The Spectrum never had a true successor. Sir Clive Sinclair sold Sinclair Research to UK businessmen Alan Sugar – now a Lord and star of the UK version of The Apprentice - in 1986 for £5 million. By 1990 it was effectively dead, killed by the advent of the 16 bit era,. It did however find a new lease of life in the former Soviet Union where it spawned numerous clones, no doubt inspiring some budding East European developers the same way it did British bedroom programmers. It lives on today in the spirit of the indie scene and the hearts of veteran UK industry figures and gamers. People are still developing for it and doing all sorts of mad things you wouldn’t think possible: you can post on Twitter using a Speccy now!

Happy birthday you beautiful little machine.

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Matt McDermott

About Matt McDermott

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com.