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

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

They key to avoiding colour clash - plain black backgrounds, well spaced sprites and right angles.

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 audio visual capabilities of the Speccy. 

The Spectrum’s more sophisticated hardware allowed for significantly improved graphics over the Atari. 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.

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...

video by RZX Archive

X-Out - Amiga

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

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...


Nice arms, shame about the legs... Both videos from World of Longplays

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.

Colour clash did not affect all games equally; there was a distinct *ahem* 'spectrum' to this.

At the lower end of the spectrum it was hardly noticeable unless you were specifically looking for it. R-Type and Exolon were fine examples of colour used well, with colour clash kept to a minimum.


With a ship that is this OP you almost feel sorry for them...almost.

Video by RZX Archive


The spacesuit is for practicality. The skirt is for that Romanesque style...

Video by Zeusdaz - The Unemulated Retro Game Channel

However, at the high end of the spectrum, sprites could appear transparent. Double Dragon suffered from this a great deal, as you can see in the video below. 

Double Dragon

Oi you lot, Predator wants his cloaking device back!...

Video by RZX Archive

Still images did not suffer from colour clash to the same degree as animated graphics. This led to ‘Spectrum art’. Users would use the Spectrum to create and share digital art. With the right skills and clever use of the technology, artists could create amazing images, pushing the Spectrum’s visual capabilities to its limits.

Er, is your spaceship supposed to be on fire? Video by pomaser

Bedroom programmers too were keen to push the graphical abilities of the Spectrum.

To this end many created graphical showcases called ‘demos.’ Although it would not be possible to implement these into a game, the results were outstanding.

This ‘Demo scene’ is something we would see again in the 16-bit era.

I just cant get enough of this demo...ok...I'll stop now...

Video by Carl Attrill

The sound capabilities of the Speccy were fairly limited, as you will no doubt have gathered from the previous gameplay videos. That said, some games featured digitised speech in limited amounts, which was another first for gaming.

Some of this was surprisingly clear, whilst some made you want to reach for the mute button. The video below shows examples of both.

You might want to turn your volume down before playing this... Video by retroisland

Although the audio capabilities of the Spectrum were limited by today’s standards, they were far in advance of the Atari's. Spectrum music had a very distinctive sound, which enthusiasts still find appealing today. It was sufficient to recreate pop music, although without the speech.

'80s tune on '80s hardware. You can't get much more '80s than that... Video by ZX Video

It's not perfect, but it still sounds better than this ;-)

Best $hittyflute ever...

Video by shittyflute

That wraps it up for this article. In the next we will delve into what playing games on the Speccy was like.

See you all then.

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