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The History of Video Games #5: The First Major Home Computer - the ZX Spectrum.

Updated: Dec 10, 2019


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 the UK, the situation was quite different. Here the video game crash did not have anywhere near as big an impact. Here the demise of the Atari coincided with the rise of the 8-bit home computer. UK gamers simply ‘traded up’ to a newer system and carried on gaming.


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 keyboard. 



The rubber keyboard ZX Spectrum 16K/48K


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 later plastic keyed ZX Spectrum +


Later iterations such as the ZX Spectrum 128 would increase this to 128 kilobytes of memory. 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 physical media formats used by the spectrum possessed far greater storage capacity than the carts used by the Atari.


These formats were audio cassettes and 3 inch floppy discs.


The discs had the advantage of near instantaneous and silent loading, however they were more expensive.


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.




The 'premium' option.


The 'budget' option.



Early variants 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 an in built cassette deck, while the more expensive +3 came with an in built disc drive. Both could still accept external tape decks and disc drives, which provided users the flexibility of using either media.




The Spectrum 128K+3, pictured above, was little Nomad's first home computer, at the tender age of eight and a half. (When you are that young the 'and a half' is all important!')


"Wow!" I thought, "128K! That’s huge!" I also felt quite smug, as it was the +3, the 'posh' one with the internal disk drive. No waiting ten minutes for a game to load whilst my ears bleed for me!


That said...


It was also my first ever experience of modding a computer. My granddad, always a 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 to do this.





Now I had TWO, count them, TWO ways of loading a game!


I had the quick and silent floppy disk for when I was flush with pocket money, and the ten-minutes-of-ear-torture cassette tapes for when I had to economise. This would happen if I had wisely invested most of my pocket money on Woolworths pick n mix.


Cassettes could take a long time to load, easily ten minutes or more. Whilst this was going on you were subjected to the audio visual assaults that were the spectrum's loading screens. 

If you would like to see and hear what I’m talking about, watch this, 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 tehvalli



The very worst thing about the tape version of the Speccy was the dreaded multi-load (shiver – PTSD flashback.) This was a euphemism for having to stop the tape once a level was loaded, then having to restart it to load the next one, subjecting 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 definitely 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 this level and load it again.



Clive Barker's Night Breed ZX Spectrum




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 god 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.

This 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. Cue trial and error and scribbling down the results with a Biro. With that sound playing. Natch.


(Natch being the slang word of the times with Speccy players, although no one could ever quite work out what it meant, or how exactly you were supposed to use it. Oh well, Natch.)


The multi-load problem was so hated that it spawned playground urban legends. One rumour stated that if you were playing 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 however. I had first hand experience of this on a number of occasions.


These cassettes were the same as audio cassettes, so if you ever remember your old Sony Walkman chewing up your favourite mix tape, you will know what I mean.


In case of this...



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



Speaking of mix tapes, 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 mix tape you wanted to hear. At least your mix tape would have sounded better than the spectrum's loading screen.


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

One advantage of tapes however was that they were far less expensive to manufacture. As a result, magazines such as Crash and Sinclair User placed tapes on their front covers.





These Cover Tapes would often contain demos of upcoming releases, small home-brew games, utilities and pokes.

"Pokes" were loadable cheat codes and simple modifications made by the community of amateur Spectrum programmers. These pokes could make a game easier, more difficult or simply play differently. 'Poking' could be seen as the beginnings of the modern day "modding scene."


Those Skyrim and GTA V mods you see today on ModDB and Nexus can probably trace their ancestry back to the poking days.


Homebrew games were essentially the indie games of the time, created by small amateur teams, or more often than not, one person alone. The term bedroom programmer became synonymous with this.


Due to the Spectrum being a computer, and therefore a far more "open" system than consoles, this scene became very large in the UK, with die-hard fans still programming things for it today!



Still going strong, thirty years on...

Video by JAMMAJUP01



That's it for now. Next time we will take a look at the audio-visual capabilities of the good old Speccy.


See you all then!



Pitcure Credits:


ZX Spectrum by Bill Bertram - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=170050


All pictures from wikipedia unless stated.