The History of Video Games #5: The ZX Spectrum - the First Home Computer for the Masses - Part One

Updated: Feb 24


ZX Spectrum +3 128K
Top of the ZX Spectrum hierarchy, the 128K +3

In the last article, we covered 'the great video game crash of 1983', which led to the demise of the Atari 2600. This led some to believe that video games were simply a passing fad. At least in America.


In other parts of the world, the situation was quite different. Here, on my side of the pond, the video game crash went largely unnoticed. In the UK the demise of the Atari 2600 coincided with the rise of the 8-bit home computer. British gamers simply ‘traded up’ to a newer system and carried on gaming.



Enter the Speccy



For many, this newer system was the Sinclair ZX Spectrum or one of its descendants.


Designed by Sir Clive Sinclair - of the Sinclair C5 fame, the spectrum family of computers was intended as the first home computer for the masses. It became extremely popular, and many affectionately referred to it as "The Speccy."


The first iteration was released in 1982 and was made famous by its rubber keys. Two versions of this were released to suit different budgets. The entry-level version offered 16 kilobytes of memory, whilst the high-end model boasted a full 48 kilobytes.


This may sound minuscule compared to the multi Gigabyte systems of today, but it was a significant increase over what had been available before.



The rubber keyboard ZX Spectrum 16K/48K
The rubber keyboard ZX Spectrum 16K/48K

The ZX Spectrum was soon followed by the ZX Spectrum +, which featured a more conventional keyboard layout with plastic keys.



ZX Spectrum +
The later plastic keyed ZX Spectrum +

Later iterations such as the ZX Spectrum 128 would increase the memory to 128 kilobytes. This increased memory allowed for significantly more complex games, and for whole genres of games that would not have been possible on earlier systems.



The more advanced Sinclair ZX Spectrum + 128K
The more advanced Sinclair ZX Spectrum + 128K

Physical Media



The physical media formats used by the Spectrum possessed far greater storage capacity than the carts used by the Atari 2600. These formats were audio cassettes and 3-inch floppy discs.


Discs had the advantages of greater durability, loading near-instantaneously and loading silently. However, gamers would have to pay a premium for these perks, as discs were considerably more expensive than tapes.


If memory serves, most disc-based games retailed at around £14.99, whilst the more affordable cassettes sold for £9.99.


Note this was 1980s money. If adjusted for inflation, this would equate to around £45 and £27 respectively.



Spectrum floppy disc
The ‘premium’ option – the ‘floppy’ disc

Spectrum Horizons audio cassette
The 'budget' option – 'audio' cassette tapes


The first three variants of the Spectrum lacked either a built-in cassette deck or disc drive. Thankfully it was a simple enough matter to plug in an external one.


Later variants of the Spectrum 128 such as the +2 came with a built-in cassette deck, while the more expensive +3 came with a built-in disc drive. Both could still accept external tape decks and disc drives, which provided users with the flexibility of using either media.


Sinclair ZX Spectrum +2 128K with integral tape deck
Sinclair ZX Spectrum +2 128K with integral tape deck
Sinclair ZX Spectrum +3 128K with integral disc drive
Sinclair ZX Spectrum +3 128K with integral disc drive


The Spectrum 128K+3, pictured above, was my first home computer, which I got my grubby little mitts on at the tender age of eight.


"Wow!" I thought, "128K, that’s huge!" I also felt quite smug, as it was the +3, the ‘high-end’ variant with the internal disk drive. It was also my first ever experience of modding a computer. My grandfather, always the tinkerer, figured out how to connect the computer to an old cassette player. At the time I was very impressed, not realising that this was actually easy to do and that they were all designed with this in mind.


My ‘add-on’ tape deck was something very much like this.



Generic 3rd party tape deck – could be hooked up to ZX Spectrum computers
Generic 3rd party tape deck – could be hooked up to ZX Spectrum computers


Although cassettes were less expensive, they came with several significant drawbacks compared to floppy discs.


Firstly, cassettes could take a long time to load, easily ten minutes or more. Whilst this was going on you would be subjected to the audio-visual ‘treats’ that were the Spectrum's loading screens. If you would like to see and hear what I’m talking about, watch the video below, with the volume turned up. But don’t say I didn’t warn you...



Dan Dare ZX Spectrum.


My eyes! My ears! My... what a big forehead you have...

Video by vallium



Multi-Load



The very worst thing about the tape version of the Speccy was the dreaded multi-load. This was a euphemism for having to stop the tape once a level was loaded, playing through the level until the end, then having to start the tape again to load the next level. Rinse and repeat. Of course, each loading session would subject your eyes and ears to yet more torture.

This meant that it could take five minutes or more before you could start the next level. This would break any ‘flow state’ you may have been in at the time, and made for a generally less than stellar experience.


And *INSERT DEITY* help you if you were playing a game that needed you to go back to previous levels, as yes, you guessed it, you would have to rewind to the part of the tape that codes said level and load it again. Clive Barker's Night Breed was one such game.



Clive Barker's Night Breed ZX Spectrum


Video by RZX Archive



In the video above you will see a 'Press Play' screen at 03:12. The uploader of this video - RZX Archive - wisely edited out the minutes of Audio-Visual torture you would have been subjected to here. There are several other such 'Press Play' screens in this video. Each would have been equally unpleasant...


To make matters worse, the games rarely gave you any indication as to where on the tape each level was encoded, other than a brief pause in the awful loading sound.


The workaround for this involved fast-forwarding or rewinding the cassette player to random points and pressing play. When you no longer heard the loading sound you had *probably* found the start of a level. Of course, you could easily overshoot and load the wrong level, which would do one of two things;


  • If you were lucky this would do nothing - giving you the chance to rewind or fast-forward to what you hope is the correct spot on the tape and try again.


  • If you were unlucky the game would crash on you, taking all of your progress with it. Why would you lose all your progress? Because most games of the era lacked a save game feature - forcing players to complete a game in one sitting or not at all.

This toing-and-froing through the tape would have been far more bearable if the cassette inlay had instructions as to which numbers on the tape counter encoded which level. Unfortunately, many did not. Queue trial and error and scribbling down the results with a Biro, all the while being treated to that sound. Natch.


(Natch being the slang word of the times with Speccy players, popularised by Spectrum magazines such as Crash and Your Sinclair. Its exact meaning was never explained, but presumably, it was short for 'naturally'. Natch.)


The multi-load problem was so hated that it spawned playground urban legends. One rumour stated that if you were playing the Spectrum version of Street Fighter II, not only would you need to load every level, but you would need to load every time you threw a fireball as well. Thankfully this was not the case, as we can see below.



Street Fighter II: The World Warrior ZX Spectrum


Interesting flying punch technique you have there Ryu...

Video by Zeusdaz - The Unemulated Retro Game Channel



The rumours about cassette tapes being vulnerable to damage and cassette decks chewing them up were undoubtedly true - I had first-hand experience of this on many occasions. This brings us to cassettes’ second major drawback - their fragility. It was very easy to damage the tape on a cassette, and since they were magnetic media, placing them near a magnet would erase them.


This fragility led to a surprisingly high number of ‘dud’ tapes which appeared undamaged but would fail to load properly on even their first use, regardless of where you purchased them from. To add insult to injury, often these dud tapes would appear to be loading fine, only to crash at the menu screen.


“So, how often were games on cassettes duds?” you might ask. If I had to put a number on it - and I can only base this on personal experience - I would say the failure rate was somewhere between one-in-six and one-in-four. Can you imagine taking home a game today and having a 25% chance of it not working? It would not be acceptable today, but expectations were somewhat lower back then.


NB – I have recently learnt via the interwebs that some external tape decks were more prone to error than others, especially those that were not designed with being hooked up to a computer to load video games in mind. Which mine probably wasn’t. It is possible then that the failure rate I encountered was the result of this. But we didn’t have the internet back then and I don’t recall any of the Spectrum computer mags of the era mentioning this, so my childhood self had no way of knowing any better.


Cassette’s longevity was also somewhat suspect since the tape could warp and stretch over time, rendering it useless. This was something of a 'crap-shoot' - some tapes might last decades, others a matter of months at best.

All these problems stemmed from video game cassettes being the same as audio cassettes, with all the same weaknesses. If you remember your old Sony Walkman chewing up your favourite mixtape, you will know what I mean.



Unravelled audio cassette

In the event of this...



fixing audio cassette with a pen

...do this. Wiki how will show you how.



Speaking of mixtapes, it was not unusual for some cassettes to contain multiple games on them. You can guess what you would need to do if the game you wanted to play was at the end of the cassette. Yep, fast forward until you reached it, just like fast-forwarding to the track on the mixtape you wanted to hear. At least your mixtape would have sounded better than the Spectrum's loading screen.


(Unless you like dubstep, in which case it would have sounded much the same.)