ZX Spectrum - humble beginnings
Last updated on December 4, 2010, 0:37 by Sebastian Mihai
Having an article dedicated to the ZX Spectrum was inevitable. My gaming career started on the Spectrum, at about four years old. My uncle had received a ZX Spectrum+ as a gift, and brought it over so he and my parents could play on it. The first Spectrum to be released was the rubber keyboard model, which was significantly more widespread than the moving-key keyboard Spectrum+. Rather than presenting in great depth the history of the ZX Spectrum, I will only focus on more interesting and quirky aspects, contrasting with today's (2010) technology whenever possible. Comprehensive histories of the machine can be easily found online. Speaking of online, I finally found a nice, complete computer to have shipped over from United Kingdom for my collection.


So at four years of age, barely figuring out things around me, I was attracted to the magnificent images on our old black-and-white TV (the Spectrum plugs into a TV), not fully understanding what was going on. My parents both played, and so did my uncle. Although they had a few cassettes full of games, Hyperaction was always the de facto Spectrum game everyone played in my house. I tried it myself, but given my age, I gave up for a while, being quite frustrated with my repeated failures. It was a game of both strategy, quick wit, and great reflexes.


Hyperaction was interesting in the fact that about five members of my family played it, and it was played to death. We would have evenings of high score battles. We knew the game so well that we used our experience to derive certain paths and pre-determined strategies that worked the best on each stage, in the same way that experienced PacMan players are able to find perfect paths. However, unlike PacMan, Hyperaction did not allow for perfect paths, due to its use of randomization, and was based on a very simple idea of an ant which tried to eat flashing 'ZX' and 'QL' signs, blue 'substance', while dodging grass cutters, Snapper Trappers, jellyfish, mutant computer chips, and apples. I must also mention that the ant could also eat acorns, blocks of ice, and patches of grass. It was grand.

(C) 1982 Sinclair Research Ltd

This is the text that greeted you when the Spectrum booted up. It used its own flavour of the BASIC programming language, which acted as both an operating system, and a programming environment. While other models had expanded memory, the standard issue Spectrum came with 48kb of usable RAM, about twenty thousand times less memory than today's (2010) standard personal computers. Games were packed as tightly as possible to fit in the tiny amount of memory. The Hyperaction screenshot above takes up 31kb of memory.

The Spectrum owed much of its success to its shockingly low price. When introduced, the 48kb model cost £175, while competitors' computers had price tags of £300 and up. The old saying goes, you get what you pay for, and the Spectrum is no exception. It had some interesting shortcomings:

  • Each 8 by 8 pixel square could only have one colour as foreground (ink), and one colour as background (paper). This caused some display problems, called attribute clashes, or colour bleeding, when two objects passed over each other, especially noticeable in games. The screenshot from Double Dragon below illustrates this point; notice how the characters' heads share the same colour scheme as the yellow car behind them.




  • There was no dedicated sound hardware. This meant that the CPU had to handle everything, including producing sound on the internal loudspeaker. The main problem with this design is that while a sound was playing, the CPU stopped everything else it was doing. The games had to be carefully designed so that the sound effects can be weaved in between gameplay elements, so that the user experience would not be greatly affected. Because of this shortcoming, Spectrum games featured music only during introductory menus. Later on, a dedicated sound chip was introduced.

  • The keyboard was designed with each key to server up to five roles. Basically instead of typing out keywords in BASIC letter by letter, you would only press the one appropriate key. Unfortunately things got quite complicated when you had to access the keywords produced by pressing Caps Shift+Key, or through finger-bending sequences such as Caps Shift+Symbol Shift followed by Symbol Shift+Key. Not only were these hard to type, beginners felt discouraged when they had to learn all the combinations.

  • Programs were loaded through audio signals, which meant that you could use unusual media to store them. At a point in time my tape player was busted, and my father hooked up the VCR to the computer, and we loaded programs using the audio signal from video tapes.

However, this is not to say that it was worse than its competition in every single aspect. The Spectrum arguably displayed much brighter, and more well-defined colours, and had good support for isometric games. If you ask anyone what they best remember about the Spectrum, I'm sure the thing you'll hear the most is loading programs from audio tapes. Regular audio tapes were used to store signal (which sounded quite annoying to the ear, something along the lines of a computer modem). The tape was played in a regular tape player connected to Spectrum. Here's why most people will remember the tapes:
  • They took a long time to load. A regular game took about five minutes or more to load.

  • Tapes are not random access storage devices; they are sequential. This meant that you had to manually search for the beginning of the program by seeking silence gaps on the tape, and hoping you didn't rewind or fast forward too much and reached the previous or next game (about 6-9 games fit on one side of the tape).

  • The signal on the tapes was often poor, and all ZX Spectrum gamers had a little screwdriver which could be used to adjust playback head, to get a clearer signal. This was done by ear. Also because of the poor signal, extraneous factors such as people walking by the tape player, doors being shut, could cause the computer to fail to load, and show the infamous:

    R Tape Loading Error 0,1



  • Tapes were tedious to copy. A user would have to first load the game into memory, then replace the tape with a blank one, and tell the computer to replay the entire program signal, while the tape player was recording onto the blank tape. Other less orthodox methods included tape-to-tape copying, and even using a microphone near the speaker of a playing tape player to record through a second tape player.

  • Some games were of the multiload type; they were too large to fit in memory, so you would have to load the main program code, and then load the first level. After playing through and completing the level, you were prompted to load level two, which followed on the tape. If you lost the game, and wanted to re-start, you had to rewind the tape back to level one again.

The Spectrum did not include a joystick, or a controller. In order to keep costs low, the interface which allowed joysticks to be connected had to be purchased separately. Most people I knew back in Bucharest did not own joysticks, and used the keyboard instead. Games allowed you to define the controls, and by far the most used configuration was Q, A, O, P, M, for up, down, left, right, fire, respectively. Personally, I could never get used to that one, and opted for I, J, A, S, M instead.

From a social perspective, the Spectrum was even more interesting. It was extremely wide-spread in Romania due to its low cost. Parents were beginning to see the computer as an educational tool, and bought their children Spectrums. Most of them were used for games exclusively, but that's beyond the point. While a few had access to the more expensive Commodore 64 computers, and some were blessed with IBM compatibles, most others had Spectrums.

Kids discussed Spectrum games all the time. They visited each other to learn new tricks and techniques from more experienced players. They asked each other for cheats (which usually required a bit of BASIC programming knowledge to input), they shared maps, and game secrets. I think that it created a strong following, a kind of a subculture even.

Being so widespread, trading games with other kids was a nice way to improve your library, since you could copy all the games that were lent to you. A remarkable aspect of Spectrum game trading was that whenever you borrowed a tape from someone, you had no idea what you got. Sure, the person might describe the games, or you may even know some of them that are arcade ports, but without the Internet, and without any access to Spectrum-related magazines (which were more prevalent in Western Europe), it was always like a little mystery. You'd get your tape, take it home, and discover each game, one by one.

Aside from my uncle's original games which he received with his computer, I had not seen original Spectrum games until about 2007, when I ordered one from eBay UK. Back in Romania all ZX software was pirated. The concept of software copyrighting was entirely unknown to us. Even computer and electronics stores sold copied tapes and didn't think twice about it. I even remember that on the introduction screen to the game Saboteur 2 (or was it 1?), there's an announcement promising £500 to anyone who provides information leading to the capture of organized software pirates. The amount seemed ridiculous to me; I just couldn't understand why someone would pay that much money for something like that.

Its game library was impressive, containing games from all possible genres. I found some of the best examples of game design in Spectrum games. They were simplistic when the player needed no clutter or obstacles. They created great atmosphere with only a few colours and no sound. They exhibited memorable pixel graphics and sprites. Most could make do with just four directional controls and a fire button. Below are a few examples.


  

Ping Pong and Way of the Exploding Fist are good examples of clean interfaces. Notice only the paddles are showing, and the space around the two fighters is very clean.




  

Robin of the Wood and Saboteur 2 demonstrate some incredible atmosphere. The forest in Robin of the Wood is both dark, yet lively. It is also complex enough to always keep you on your toes and wondering what you may find in the next screen. It really makes you feel like the stealthy outlaw after whom it is named. When you play Saboteur 2 you would like your entire house to be quiet, in order to be able to concentrate on the sabotage mission at hand. Everything happens either at night, or underground, and you can feel the state of alertness in the guards and their ferocious dogs.




  

Manic Miner is probably the most iconic ZX Spectrum game, and Dizzy the egg is among the most endearing characters of that era. Manic Miner used three keys (left, right, jump), and the Dizzy series used four (left, right, jump, pick up item).




  

Trashman and Tapper have incredibly simple designs, yet are amazingly fun and re-playable. In Trashman you must pick up garbage and dump it in the truck while avoiding cars on the street and dogs near the houses. In Tapper, you must serve each of the thirsty patrons while collecting the empty mugs and occasional tips.




The ZX Spectrum lives on.
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