In Praise of the ZX Spectrum and 8-bit Home Computing

Raise your arms above your head until you lose sensation in your hands. Now try to type: 10 PRINT “HELLO WORLD”

Well done — you’ve just replicated the experience of programming the original ZX Spectrum.

Released in 19Sinclair C582 with its famed ‘dead flesh’ rubber keyboard, the ZX Spectrum made home computing a reality in the UK and beyond. It was the brainchild of Sir Clive Sinclair, a rich eccentric who can list among his accomplishments the invention of the slimline pocket calculator, the portable television (although it never reached the market), and the Sinclair C5 (pictured). In case it passed you by, the C5 was an ambitious battery assisted tricycle that was set to revolutionise UK road transport. And it would have too, had it not been so utterly ridiculous.

However, with the ZX “Speccy” Spectrum, Sinclair achieved a revolution of a different kind. Affordable, diverse video games came into British homes for the first time. In its ten year existence, the Spectrum inspired not only a generation of enthusiastic gamers, but also a generation of dedicated game developers — a long list that includes the influential Tim and Chris Stamper of Rage. These were the original ‘bedroom programmers’, distributing software on cheaply produced (and sometimes totally non-functional) cassette tapes.

Spectrum +3

I owned both the first model of Spectrum (the 48k) and the last — the ZX Spectrum +3 (pictured above). I was particularly fond of the latter, which boasted not only a spring-loaded keyboard, but also a 3.5” floppy disk drive. No more unreliable cassettes! The future had truly arrived.

My parents bought our first Speccy in 1983 when I was four years old. Looking back it seems that half my childhood was spent either clutching a Kempston joystick, leafing through the current issue of Your Sinclair, or forcing my beleaguered father to dictate from a book of BASIC while I diligently prodded and poked those rubber keys. I’ve no complaints, I was a happy boy.

Now I’m thirty. While this isn’t particularly old, it’s considerably older than some of the people with whom I work. I was speaking with a colleague recently whose earliest gaming memory was of watching her older brother play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, aged six. I was 18 at the time.

Presumably satisfied that she had successfully sown the mid-life crisis seed, my colleague sauntered off to some party or other, and I went home and depressed myself further by looking up the release dates of the games I played as a child. I spent hours at this, only taking occasional breaks to look in the mirror and scream, “What have I become?”

In the course of this jolly little expedition around the world wide web, I stumbled upon a browser-based emulator for Spectrum games. It was an amazing find. Playing those classics made me feel like a kid again (so long as I ignored my ageing, weeping reflection in the monitor’s screen).

Anyway, in an effort to spread the joy, I’d like to share my nostalgia with you by highlighting the first five games I searched for on discovering that emulator site. Three were cross-platform games, but the other two were Spectrum exclusives that you may have missed if you never owned one of Sir Clive Sinclair’s glorious little machines.


1. Robocop (1988, Ocean Software, cross-platform)

I just consulted my prepubescent self and he assures me that the holy trinity of movie tie-ins consisted of Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters and Robocop. I am in no doubt Robocop was the stand-out game of the three. For the most part it was a side-scrolling shooter, but the high point was the first-person recreation of the moment in the film when the eponymous hero takes down a hostage-holding, gun-wielding criminal by shooting through the hostage’s skirt. Disappointingly, the game-skirt was entirely impenetrable — I should know, I tried it enough times. Here's the in-game moment:

Also worth mentioning is the developers' decision to make Robocop nonsensically say his own name after completing each level, like some kind of victory cry. I’d like to think it’s because it took so long to get the audio right, they couldn’t justify only using it on the menu screen. Or perhaps they were really onto something: when Tiger Woods next strikes a hole-in-one from 300 yards, wouldn’t it be great to hear him do a perfect Sagat impression?

2. Operation Wolf (1987, Taito, cross-platform)

There’s no doubt about it, Operation Wolf was an arcade game through and through. But the groundbreaking opportunity to use the light gun (pictured) on a home television is why I remember it so well.

Light GunThe game moved at a frenetic pace. Foreground enemies slid across the screen, firing machine guns from point-blank range. Behind them, soldiers with unnaturally quick-moving legs charged around shooting and throwing knives; others parachuted in from off-screen planes. Ground troops were supported by helicopters and armoured vehicles that pumped a constant hail of bullets in your direction, while medics blithely carried wounded friendlies on stretchers through your line of fire.

I’ll never forget that game. Somehow, trying to use that inaccurate, plasticky peripheral to eliminate repetitive waves of enemy troops constituted one of the most immersive gaming experiences I’ve ever known.

3. Saboteur (1985, Durell Software, Cross-Platform)

Q: Just Cause 2, Splinter Cell Conviction and Saboteur. Which is the odd one out?

A: Saboteur. It was the only game of the three that didn’t require the player to engage in any sabotage.

Saboteur was a multi-screen side-scrolling platformer in which the martial-arts trained protagonist was required to infiltrate a warehouse, steal a disk, and escape by helicopter. Optionally, he could try a bit of sabotage by blowing the whole place up on his way out — but that seemed like something of an afterthought; it wasn’t even mentioned in the game’s inlay card text.

The warehouse — which was really a cunningly disguised high-tech security base — was defended by guards, dogs, and ceiling-mounted guns that to little Ben Ingber, aged six, appeared to shoot tomatoes (see for yourself in the video below).

But what endures about Saboteur is how the developers’ ethics permeated the whole experience. Morality in games has been called into question more times than I care to remember, so it’s refreshing that in the Saboteur instruction booklet the points system was expressed as follows:

Guard killed by punch or kick – 500 (real Ninja stuff!)
Guard killed by weapon – 100
Dog killed – 0 (so why do it?)

Why do it indeed?

Sceptics would argue that if you decided to blow the entire place up (for the maximum 10,000 points) all the dogs will die anyway, but that’s beside the point.

4. Jet Set Willy (1984, Software Projects, Spectrum Exclusive, intially)

Miner Willy was the star of a number of games. But it’s the first two games that endure: Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy. I went for Jet Set Willy, but Manic Miner is worth a mention for its horrible rendition of In the Hall of the Mountain King by Grieg. Sophisticated in-game music on the Spectrum was groundbreaking at the time, but that doesn’t make it any less awful.

Jet Set Willy was a broken, uncompletable side-scrolling platformer in which Willy had to tidy up his house following a messy party. And that’s all I have to say about it. It’s terrible. In fact, I now hate it so much that all nostalgia I had for it has completely evaporated. I feel nothing for it anymore. It’s dead to me.

But hey, you’re an adult, make your own mind up:

5. Chaos (1985, Games Workshop, Spectrum Exclusive)

Chaos was a turn-based strategy game that took place on a fixed 10 x 15 tiled board. Up to eight wizards battled it out until only one remained standing. Any combination of player or computer controlled characters was possible, enabling up to eight-player multiplayer.

A turn began with the first wizard casting a spell. Each spell was assigned a percentage chance of success. There were a good range of spells to choose from, but the most memorable were the beasts that could be summoned, especially the Red Dragon. Having cast a spell, the wizard and his creatures could be moved around the board, or used to attack enemies. It would then be the turn of the next player.

I was surprised and delighted to discover that this game is still a lot of fun. Not nostalgic fun, but actual fun.

And for that, all credit must to the developer Julian Gollop. While Robocop was busy trying to compress a full cinematic experience into a computer with less memory than an amnesiac goldfish, Chaos was building upon — and expanding — the solid but less immediate format of card and board games.

The beauty of Gollop’s achievement is that he understood that competent visual representation and automated behind-the-scenes dice rolls were enough to elevate the video game experience above its table-top alternatives. Chaos was — and remains — a fine example of a game that is imaginative and ambitious, without ever overreaching. A bona fide classic.


Well, those were the first five I thought of when presented with practically every Spectrum game ever.

I certainly overlooked dozens of classics from the era, so please do chime in with your own memories in the comments — if only to make me feel less old.

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