The first computer I ever saw, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum was about the size of a large paperback book, jet black (save the rainbow flash of colours zipping across the bottom corner) with tiny grey rubber keys.
Invented by balding scientist Sir Clive Sinclair in 1984, the Spectrum was one of the first home computers. Plugged into the telly, you could play games in your own front room! Granted, they were all rubbish, but I wasn’t allowed in arcades, so to me, they were like stepping into TRON.
If you could go back in time to visit the eight-year-old me, and swap my Spectrum for an XBOX, it would be like giving a caveman a Cornetto. I’d love it for five minutes and then throw up, my body unable to comprehend the assault of colours, music and hard-core violence. (That is exactly what would happen if you gave a caveman a Cornetto)
For one, all the games for the Spectrum were on cassette tapes.
While this made copying your mate’s games pretty easy (all you needed was a tape-to-tape HiFi) it did mean that most Spectrum games took at least eight minutes to load. EIGHT MINUTES. Can you imagine any child today waiting eight minutes for Call of Duty to load? No, they’d be off spray-painting the library.
I found those eight minutes quite handy – you could pop downstairs for some toast and cup of tea and be back before the game had loaded. That way, you also avoided the EXCRUCIATING loading noises. Like scraping a cat’s claws down a blackboard while simultaneously putting its tail in a George Foreman grill. No one who owned a Spectrum will ever forget that noise – and it lasted EIGHT MINUTES.
(Later, when the games became more complicated, you often had to inset ANOTHER cassette tape and wait AGAIN. Even then around 75 per cent of the time, you’d just get an ERROR message and have to start over.)
However, if you were patient, you were rewarded with an embarrassment of riches.
Take the game Horace Goes Skiing for example. Check out these state of the art graphics. And the gameplay! You could move Horace left AND right!
Another staple of the Spectrum was the text based adventure game. These dispensed with graphics and moving characters completely, opting instead for descriptions of what was happening. The player would simply type instructions such as ‘go north’ to move to the next location.
But the rubbish nature of the graphics eventually forced programmers to be wildly creative with gameplay resulting in some of the cleverest, most inventive games ever made.
Sinclair brought out a 128k memory version, allowing software companies to make games like Chaos (chess with wizards), Laser Squad, (vast tactical warfare) and Elite (a never-ending space trading game). Soon, the Spectrum had become the most popular home computer in Europe. Kids at school that had the rival Commodore 64 were losers – the ‘Speccy’ was king.
Back then, you didn’t need 72 programmers, voice-artists, musicians and script-writers to make a game. Anyone could learn to code games on their own machine, meaning there was no end to the bizarre titles that came out. If a programmer had an idea, they could make a game out of it.
Want a somersaulting egg that solves puzzles? No problem, you had Dizzy – a sort of Indiana Jones.
Then there was Paperboy (you just had to deliver papers), Marble Madness (you were a marble), School Daze (you were a naughty schoolboy who had to terrorise fellow pupils without getting detention) and Jet Set Willy (not too sure what happened in that one…)
I loved my Spectrum more than it was normal to love a stupid noisy box of wires. It became more than a hobby – hunting down second hand games at car boot sales and devouring both monthly fan magazines, Sinclair User and Your Sinclair.
Even when Amiga’s, Mega Drive and Nintendo arrived, I stuck with my old Speccy. The new games dried up, but there was still a hardcore fan base still programming their own. I still remember the last ever issue of Your Sinclair – a massive double edition that paid tribute over a decade of Sir Clive’s revolutionary home computer. It was like Michael Jackson had died.
Now, the entire concept of the Spectrum is so alien to today’s youth, it’s hard to believe they even existed. But they did, and I’ve still got mine in the loft somewhere to prove it. I’ve got an XBOX now, and while the games look like Hollywood movies and you can spend hours recreating World Cup finals against 12 year-olds on the other side of the world, I’d still rather sit through eight minutes of screeching and play a two-dimensional black and white game featuring a somersaulting egg every time.
By Luke Chilton