Zx Spectrum Day Part One: The Importance of the Zx Spectrum

If there’s an observation to be made about online retro gaming culture, there’s a definite US bias. This isn’t a criticism –  I can definitely say I’ve learned a lot about Atari and the like from visiting US-centric retro sites – but it’s a bias that seems to be present nonetheless. In the same spirit of cultural interchange then, I’d like to talk a bit about a subject close to my heart: the ZX Spectrum.

From a UK perspective, the Speccy has a level of importance similar to NES in the US. Though we eventually ended up at the same destination, our video game industries developed very differently: There was no massive surge in the market for videog ame consoles before 1983, and there was consequently no crash during that year. Indeed, consoles themselves didn’t really take off until Sega arrived in the middle of the 1980s. For most of the decade the focus was on home computers, and the spearhead for this revolution was the Zx Spectrum. Over a ten year period that began in 1982, the computer would sell millions of hardware units, act as a home to thousands of games and spawn a number of important developers who would go on to shape  our shared electronic future. The Zx Spectrum may not be part of your gaming heritage, but here are a couple of reasons why you might want to take more than a passing interest in Sinclair’s little black box anyway:

Design

Spearheaded by egg-headed computer expert Sir Clive Sinclair, the Zx Spectrum was fashioned to be a bit different from other computers. Where other companies were happy to offer exotic features for a high price point, Sir Clive’s machines were bare-bones creations designed so that they were affordable to all. The Spectrum’s immediate predecessor, the ZX81, had been available in kit form for as little as £50. The cheapest iteration of the Spectrum retailed – fully assembled –  for £125. By contrast, The Spectrum’s great rival the Commodore 64 was released in the same year for £399. Blimey. I bet you can now see why there are so many UK based Spectrum fans now, can’t you?

 

Zx81

The ZX81, in all its’ cheap monochrome glory.

 

Why was the Spectrum so much cheaper? Well, a quick examination of the unit reveals that the thing was savagely cost controlled: From the absence of a power or reset button to the ‘dead flesh’ feel of its rubber keyboard, it was clear that the only things going into Sir Clive’s box were things that expressly needed to be there.

This had a couple of interesting side effects on the Zx Spectrum as a game machine. Though the Spectrum had been designed as a cheaper answer to the incoming wave of fancy home computers with full-colour graphics, it needed to employ a colour solution that fitted Sinclair’s cost-controlled ethos. The solution, established by Sinclair designer Richard Altwasser, was pretty ingenious: Equipped with a 4-bit palette, ZX Spectrum coders had access to 15 colours (well, ‘bright’ and ‘dark’ shades of 7 colours plus black) and had an overall screen resolution of 256×192 – an output significantly higher than the Commodore 64’s  commonly used 160 × 200 colour mode. 

The only problem with this solution was that, as a memory saving measure, colour was handled at a much lower resolution than that of the screen. This meant that every 8×8 group of pixels rendered on screen had to share the same foreground and a background colour. If two adjacent objects had different attributes (say a character coloured white against a tree that was coloured brown) then the colour attributes would ‘clash,’ causing one object to become the same the colour as the other. Ooh eck. Though this was acceptable for slower-paced adventure games, it was of course completely unworkable for any fast-paced action game that depended on a lot of movement. As a consequence, a good chunk of the Spectrum’s library had to be rendered in monochrome.

zxspectrum

Attribute clash! See how the background colours are altered by objects in the foreground?

It was a similar story in the sound department too. While the Commodores and the Ataris of this world were equipped with their own dedicated Programmable Sound Generators, The Spectrum’s bare-bones design meant that, for its’ first iteration at least, Spectrum and game designers had make do with a simple piezoelectric buzzer. Just like the graphics, this was an interesting solution:  Though the buzzer was technically 1-bit (i.e. the only hardware control was to turn it on and off,) it was driven directly by the CPU.

The involvement of the CPU complicated matters. While the sound on other console was governed largely by the physical construction of their sound chip, the complexity of beeper music was (and is) limited only by the cleverness of the sound driver used to talk to it. Multiple channels, special effects and sampled speech can all be recreated on a 48k spectrum – even if everything had a distinctly aggressive fuzz to it. As cool as this was, as with the graphics there was a major trade off to be made. 48k spectrum games might have had some awesome music on their title screens, but the amount of heavy lifting done by the CPU meant it wasn’t practical to have sound and gameplay at the same time.

The same pattern of cost/benefit can be seen the outside of the machine as well. Though the cost-controlled keyboard was made of a rubber that felt like ‘dead flesh’, the actual case design was smaller and smarter than most of the competition. A tiny black box emblazoned with a distinct Rainbow Motif, The unit still holds up as a thing of beauty and acts as a clear example of how style doesn’t necessarily have to cost money.

 

zxspectrum

The 48k Spectrum in all its glory. Would you want this or a large grey box in your living room?

 

The Spectrum hardware was an interesting mish-mash of premium and bargain characteristics then: Spectrum games were generally displayed in a higher resolution than the competition’s, but colour (at least in gameplay areas) was often lacking. The sounds a composer could create with its buzzer were individual, but too CPU intensive to be used in game. The machine looked absolutely fantastic, but felt like dead flesh.

Of these characteristics, only the colour was set in stone, however. like with modern consoles, the spectrum design changed over time. Originally released in 16k and 48k variants, the cheaper 16k option was soon dropped as it simply wasn’t up to running the kinds of software the audience demanded. The 48k model received an updated case design in June 1984, but the machine received no internal enhancements until the arrival of 1986’s Spectrum 128. The 128 not only boosted the RAM up to a mammoth 128k but also included a MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) port, scart/monitor port and a dedicated programmable sound generator which allowed for in-game music.

Given the 16-bit Amiga had already been released in the US the year before,  you’d think that such an update would be met with consumer apathy. However, by 1986 the Spectrum still offered a lot of bang for a relatively small amount of buck (£180 in 1986) and the system continued to sell (in various different guises after Sinclair was bought out by Amstrad,) into the 1990s.

Cultural Meaning of the Zx Spectrum

“We bought it to help with your homework, and the household accounts, if your dad ever works it all out” So begins the song “Hey Hey 16k” by MJ Hibbet and the Validators. It’s a fantastic opening and one that  helps exemplify just how important the Spectrum was from a cultural perspective. You see, though the Spectrum might be comparable with the NES from the perspective of a games machine, as a fully functional computer the Spectrum was capable of so much more.

Sadly, for the most part the Spectrum’s non-gaming potential didn’t really pan out. Though there were some utilities released for the Spectrum, it was never a computer that Dad would be able to do the accounts on. Likewise “I need one to help me with my homework” also turned out to be a statement that, though often repeated, was slightly less than honest – unless your homework assignment involved shooting space invaders, of course.

 

zx spectrum

If your spectrum ever ran anything that looked remotely like a spread sheet, you were in a minority

 

Consequently, the only major non-game playing activity that really took off on the Spectrum was, well, writing them. the Spectrum booted straight into Sinclair’s implementation of the BASIC language (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code,) meaning that your Spectrum was ready and waiting to create custom game code from the second you turned it on at the wall.

While many people never progressed further than learning the code required to have their Spectrum (or more desirably, someone else’s) churn out an endless strings of rude words, plenty of people did. A small industry soon formed helping these bedroom coders,  and there was an abundance of both dry text books that taught you the fundamentals of coding and magazines that contained the code for games you could type in and play there and then. Hurrah!

The effect of this sudden new industry shouldn’t be underestimated. In 1982, a fifteen year old student in Northern Ireland sent the code for a game he’d written into one such magazine and received a  £450 cheque for his efforts. He went on to get a job as an apprentice in the industry, and ended up working on the Spectrum ports of both the arcade game Smash T.V. and the NES game based on the Teenage Ninja Turtles Cartoon. The teenager’s name was Dave Perry and he went on to develop the Megadrive versions of Aladdin and Cool Spot for Virgin, before going on to create the Earthworm Jim and MDK series’.

 

zxspectrum

No Spectrum Turtles…maybe no Earthworm Jim?

 

His story isn’t a one off, either. The Spectrum’s involvement in the beginning of Rare’s career is already well known, but it’s noteworthy that the Spectrum played an important part in the creation of both Wipeout pioneers Psygnosis (who split from defunct software house Imagine in 1984) and GTA creators DMA design (which sprung from like-minded amateur coders who met at the Kingsway Amateur Computer Club in Dundee.) The environment created by the Spectrum (alongside, slightly later, the Commodore 64) was a winning one: established coders had cheap and open platforms with large install bases, while wannabee coders had a system withon which they could learn the trade. It was win-win for everyone.

Over the course of its life span, the Spectrum helped change the entire sphere of computing, then. In 1982, computing was a niche, specialist affair. The Spectrum itself  was originally released via mail order only and couldn’t be found in the shops. Indeed, the 16k Spectrum’s 32k ram expansion even used ‘minimal soldering required’ as one of its selling points. By the mid eighties everything had changed. Millions of computers had found their way into people’s homes. Sweet shops sold budget games and magazines devoted to home computing, and big department stores stocked premium releases in chunky card board boxes.For those who had learned to code, there were numerous opportunities to break into the industry and get their creations published. Yes, it’s note worthy that this wasn’t entirely down to the Spectrum (rivalry with the country’s Commodore 64 owners was a popular dividing line in the school playground,) but it had played a very important part. Traditional children’s media, such as comics, were in decline. After the home computer revolution nothing would be the same again.

Of course, a fascinating computer is nothing without fascinating games. In Part Two we’ll take a look at what Spectrum games are still worth giving the time of day.

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About Fatnick

Hello! How do you do? I’m Fatnick, a chiptune-making ZX Spectrum-loving frog from South London. When not skirmishing, you can find me over at Mechafatnick.co.uk or @Mechafatnick and listen to me on Spotify

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Zx Spectrum Day Part Two: The Games – Skirmish Frogs

  2. I love that you write this stuff. You’re right about the kind of pervasive US bias, so I’m always interested to hear about how gaming was different elsewhere.

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