The History of Video Games #6: The Audio-Visual Capabilities of the Good Old Speccy

Updated: Feb 26

Exolon on the ZX Spectrum
Exolon: the spacesuit is for practicality. The skirt is for that Romanesque style...

In the last article, we saw the rise of the ZX Spectrum, which coincided with the demise of the Atari 2600. We looked at the perils of cassette-based physical media, and how the speccy’s ‘open’ system allowed for the first modding scene, and the beginning of indie gaming. Now we will look into the audiovisual capabilities of the Speccy. 

Setting New Standards

The Spectrum’s more sophisticated hardware allowed for significantly improved graphics over the Atari 2600. Compare Super Breakout on the Atari 2600 to Arkanoid on the Spectrum to see the difference.

Super Breakout - Atari 2600

Boing boing boing...

Video by James Barrett

Arkanoid - ZX Spectrum

Open wide...

Video by Zeusdaz - The Unemulated Retro Game Channel

Many games, especially some of the earlier titles, opted for a monochrome colour pallet, i.e. one colour against a plain black background.

Head over Heels - ZX Spectrum

What a lovely shade of black and blue.

Video by Gabriel Cuesta

Above we can see Head over Heels. This was a fine example of how simulated shading could create the illusion of depth and solidity, even when using a restricted colour pallet. Incidentally, it was also the inspiration for one of 'The IT crowd’s' season 1 DVD menu animations.

IT Crowd DVD Menu Animations

How many references can you spot?

Video by Framestore | Design Studio

Sometimes the technical limitations of the Speccy worked in a game's favour. Compare the videos of X-Out below. The different colour pallet used every two levels on the Spectrum version helped to give each section of the game a distinct ‘feel’. 

Even though the Amiga version is graphically superior, every level felt much the same. The last two levels are a particularly good example. Of the two, which has the more atmospheric ‘descent into hell’ vibe to it?

X-Out - ZX Spectrum.

Space aliens are so last year, underwater aliens are this season's existential threat...

Last two levels start at the 21:36 mark

Video by RZX Archive

X-Out - Amiga.

This is why I don't swim in the sea...

Last two levels start at the 18:04 mark

Video by Amigamers T.V.

Other earlier games opted for a colourful but simplistic and ‘cartoony’ look, such as in Dizzy and Sabre Wulf

Fantasy World Dizzy

I'll never look at a poached egg the same way again...

Video by World of Longplays

Sabre Wulf

What a neatly laid out jungle, so convenient for trekking...

Video by RZX Archive

As you would expect, the best looking games came very late in the Spectrum’s life. These combined the clever shading of early monochrome games with the full colour pallet of the early 'cartoony' titles.

Dan Dare Three and Extreme - both created on the same game engine - are probably the finest examples of this.

Dan Dare III

Someone tell the green slap head guy to give up, he can't compete with that chin...

Video by World of Longplays


Nice arms, shame about the legs...

Video by World of Longplays

The Colour Clash Curse

However, one problem plaguing many multi-colour spectrum games was Attribute clash, or 'colour clash' as it was more commonly known. This was due to limitations of the hardware, and is possibly the reason why many developers went down the monochrome route.