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The History of Video Games #7: Gaming on the Speccy

Updated: Feb 26, 2021


Robocop zx spectrum 128K
RoboCop vs Chainsaws (Or potted cacti, I can't tell)

Welcome back, everyone! In the last article, we investigated the audio-visual capabilities of the Speccy. Now we will take a look at how these capabilities were used in what most people used the Speccy for – gaming.


Which is a little ironic, since Sir Clive Sinclair never intended the Speccy to be a gaming machine.



Input Devices



Games on the spectrum were played via a combination of joystick and keyboard. The early versions of the ZX spectrum did not feature integral controller ports, therefore plug-in interfaces were needed to connect the joysticks. The most significant examples of these being the ‘Kempston’ and the ‘Sinclair ZX Interface 2’.

Once Amstrad bought out Sinclair Researches’ computer product range and the ‘Sinclair’ brand, they released the +2 and +3 computers, which featured a pair of integral controller ports.

The Competition Pro and the Powerplay Cruiser were two very popular brands of joystick, partly due to their ergonomics and ‘clicky’ buttons, and partly due to their near indestructibility.



Competition Pro - also in transparent and camo colour schemes
Competition Pro - also in transparent and camo colour schemes

The cruiser featured a three-setting resistance feature, allowing users to make the stick as loose and wobbly or stiff as they saw fit. This was my weapon of choice for gaming on the Speccy.



Cruiser - also in black
Cruiser - also in black

Similar to the Atari 2600, the 9-pin connectors used by the Spectrum computers restricted joysticks to 9 input functions - specifically eight-way movement and one fire button. Although many sticks possessed multiple buttons, they all did the same thing. This duplication of buttons was implemented to make the joysticks ambidextrous. Therefore, games on the spectrum, just like on the Atari, used an ‘up-to-jump’ control scheme. Many a playground argument was had between the ‘up-to-jump’ and the ‘button-to-jump’ camps.

Being limited to a single fire button was a limitation which forced a number of design constraints on games. It also caused problems when porting games from arcades and consoles which used a multi-button control set up. The ability to use the keyboard’s keys went some way to overcome this limitation - such as pressing the space bar to activate smart bombs and the like - but it was awkward to do in practice. Still, we had no other option, so we adjusted accordingly.



Let the Games Begin…



Gaming on the Speccy was both evolutionary and revolutionary. Whilst many games and genres were evolutions of what had been seen before on the Atari or in the arcades, some simply would not have been possible on previous hardware, or practical for an arcade setting.


Most of the genres which would become commonplace were to be found on the Speccy, and they came in many forms. We will take a look at all of these in turn.



Film Tie-ins



One popular genre of the day was the film tie-in. If there was a big Hollywood blockbuster hitting the big screen, you could be sure that there would be a video game tie-in gracing our small screens at home.


Some of these were the same terrible ‘shovelware’ cash grabs that had plagued the Atari 2600, but there were many genuine gems, which were fantastic games in their own right.


Ocean Software's RoboCop was an example of a film tie-in done well. Ever wanted to punch out an ED-209? Now’s your chance!


That said, when I first played it, I thought the game was broken since RoboCop couldn’t jump, which was unusual for a side-scrolling 'run-and-gun' game. Then I remembered, RoboCop never jumped in the movies either, and he wasn’t known for his grace and agility in general, so this was probably deliberate.


The less said about the hyper-agile robot ninjas from the terrible third film the better.


RoboCop Spectrum


Perhaps that should be ‘plod and gun’ since he couldn’t run either.


One problem synonymous with the film tie-ins of the time was the habit of attempting to recreate the film scene-for-scene. What works on film does not always translate well into a video game. This led to some inconsistent gameplay experiences, with some titles feeling more like a collection of loosely connected mini-games than a single cohesive game.


The Untouchables was a particularly poor tie-in for these reasons. It attempted to be a platform run and gun shooter, a third-person shooter, a third-person gallery shooter and an overhead shooter all in one game. And all of them were poorly executed. Concentrating on one gameplay mechanic and then polishing it until it shone would probably have yielded better results.



The Untouchables Spectrum


You see the ‘stop tape’ screens? Yup - that’s multi-load for you

Video by RZX Archive



Arcade Conversions



Since this was the 1980s - the golden age of the coin-op arcade - there were naturally a great many conversions of the popular arcade games of the time.


Again, the quality varied greatly, but the best conversions were faithful re-creations of their coin-op counterparts. Unsurprisingly, some of these were amongst the best games on the system. Bubble Bobble and its ‘spiritual successorRainbow Islands were particularly fine conversions.


Bubble Bobble Arcade




Bubble Bobble Spectrum




Rainbow Islands Arcade




Rainbow Islands Spectrum




As you can see, the Spectrum lacked the audio-visual chops possessed by the arcade cabinets. NB - This was true to a greater or lesser extent for all of the home systems of the time. The fabled ‘arcade-perfect conversion’ – i.e. a game that was just as good on the home systems as it was in the arcades - was still a long way off at this point.


Therefore, I would argue that these developers deserve extra kudos for managing to pull off such high-quality conversions on such relatively underpowered hardware.


One issue facing anyone attempting to port an arcade game to the Spectrum was the Spectrum’s one-button joystick. Up-to-jump solved this for most arcade games that had separate fire and jump buttons. However, arcade games which used three or more buttons were often impossible to port satisfactorily.


Ports


Late in the Spectrum’s life, we also started to see ports from the more powerful 16-bit home computers, such as the Amiga 600 and Atari-ST.


Shadow of the Beast Amiga




Shadow of the Beast Spectrum




The 16-bit home computers also used a one-button joystick system, which made porting these games slightly easier than porting games from the arcades. That said, the difficulties of porting over a title onto comparatively underpowered hardware still remained, so I suggests these developers too should receive extra kudos for their accomplishments.



No Console Ports?



One genre that was conspicuous by its absence was console ports, specifically ports from the NES. This was presumably due to Nintendo wishing for its NES titles to remain NES exclusives, as this would encourage people to purchase their new console.


Therefore, there were no Super Mario Bros or Metroids to be found on the Spectrum, or any other home computer for that matter.


“But wait” You might say, “I’m sure I saw Mario Bros and Donkey Kong on the Spectrum”.


And this is true. These early Nintendo titles pre-date the NES and were actually ports of the coin-op arcade versions. At this point in history, it would have made sense for Nintendo to port its arcade games onto as many homes systems as possible to maximise revenue.


Donkey Kong Arcade.




Donkey Kong Spectrum




Mario Bros Arcade




Mario Bros Spectrum




However, once the NES hit the shelves, it was in Nintendo's interests to maintain platform exclusivity. From that point on, no Nintendo game has graced a non-Nintendo platform - except for Mario Run for mobile devices of course. This is most likely due to Nintendo not making phones, so there is no conflict of interest here.



Ports From Other 8-Bit Microcomputers



Perhaps in response to this platform exclusivity, developers for the home computer market started creating titles to compete with the most successful Nintendo franchises.


One notable example being the Turrican series, which could be considered the home computer’s answer to Metroid.


Turrican started life on the C64 to rave reviews and was soon ported to both less powerful systems such as the Spectrum and enhanced for the more advanced Amiga and Atari ST.



Turrican C64



Turrican Spectrum




Perhaps ironically, later consoles, including the SNES, would get their own versions of Turrican as well. Metroid would remain a strictly Nintendo exclusive, however. Natch.


In short, Turrican was fantastic, with fans creating homebrew versions even today.

We will investigate the Metroid series in future articles, and will no doubt meet Turrican again when discussing other systems.



Driving Games



The Speccy also had racing games aplenty, such as Turbo Outrun and Chase H.Q. The 3D racing games of this era were not true 3D. For example, you could not oversteer, turn around and then start driving off in the ‘wrong’ direction as you would be able to in later titles. Indeed, it was not until the early 1990s Super Mario Kart on the SNES that this became a possibility for most home systems.


Racing games of this era - including arcade cabinet racing games - used alternating light and dark bands on the ground combined with differently sized sprites to create the illusion of movement and depth. Although primitive by today's standards, this worked well enough, and racing games became a very popular genre.



ZX Spectrum racing games 80s compilation


Skip to 09:23 to see the alternating light and dark bands used in all their glory Video by Modern ZX-Retro Gaming



'Top down' 2D racing games were also fairly popular, such as 1987's Super Sprint.



Super Sprint 128k




Brawlers and Fighting Games


Another popular genre on the Spectrum was the ‘brawler’, or as my young self used to call them, “walking along beat ‘em ups”, since you walk along from left to right beating up baddies. #kidlogic.


Some of these were ports of arcade games, such as Double Dragon which we saw in the previous article. Others were home computer originals, such as the fantastic Target: Renegade, and its terrible sequel Renegade III: The Final Chapter. The Speccy even got a port of Final Fight!



Target Renegade




Renegade III


"Captin cavemaaa-ow!" Video by Zeusdaz - The Unemulated Retro Game Channel



Final Fight Spectrum


"Welcome to the gun show!"

Video by RZX Archive



One-on-one fighting games were less common, partly due to the restrictions imposed by the one-button joystick. A few notable exceptions being Yie Ar Kung-Fu and International Karate, both of whom's move sets were limited yet effective.



Yie Ar Kung-Fu Spectrum




International Karate Spectrum




Attempts to port over Street Fighter 2 were less successful, as there was simply no way to adequately recreate a six-button control scheme on a one-button joystick, as you can plainly see in the video below.



Street Fighter 2 Spectrum




Shoot 'Em Ups



The arcade-style shoot ‘em ups were another popular genre on the Speccy. The relatively simple control schemes employed by such games were easy to port over to the one-button stick.


Titles such as R-Type showed just how well the Speccy could pull off such games if the developers gave them enough care and attention. Horizontal shooters, which usually featured a plain black or ‘starfield’ background worked particularly well.



R-Type Spectrum


This is not a Xenomorph, honest. look - it has eyes. Please don't sue...



Sadly, a few horizontal scrollers suffered due to making the backgrounds too detailed. Check out the footage of U.N. Squadron below. How much easier is it to see the enemy’s bullets against the plain black sky than against the buildings? And how much easier still is it to see the enemies ‘bullets’ in R-Type than in any part of U.N. Squadron? This difficulty in making out enemies and shots against the background would often lead to frustrating and unexpected deaths caused by threats that you simply could not see.



Video by RZX Archive



Vertical shooters suffered from this even more frequently, due to their top-down view looking down onto an often ‘busy’ landscape. Contrast the arcade and spectrum versions of Terra Cresta and Flying Shark below. On which versions are the enemies and their bullets easier to notice against the backdrop?


Terra Cresta Arcade




Terra Cresta Spectrum


Fast forward to 0:58 to see what I mean. Or not see, which was the problem.

Video by RZX Archive



Flying Shark was another unfortunate victim of this.


Flying Shark Spectrum


Video by 9Pix9



Some games avoided this by using a mostly plain background for the important areas of the screen, as you can see in Spy Hunter and Commando below.



Spy Hunter Spectrum


Video by RZX Archive



Commando Spectrum


Video by RZX Archive



You would think that developers would realise these problems and take every step to rectify them. Unfortunately, this was not always the case, with some creating problems that had already been solved previously.


Compare the videos of Arkanoid 1 and 2 below. On which Arkanoid is it easier to see the ball?



Arkanoid Spectrum


Video by RZX Archive



Arkanoid 2 – Revenge of DOH




There were unfortunately many other examples of this on the Spectrum. My solution was to simply not play these games, which was a pity as some of them would otherwise have been very enjoyable titles.



Conclusion


That’s it for now. Next time we will look at the games that were developed specifically for the home computer market, and the Spectrum in particular. See you then!



Do you remember playing on the Speccy? If so, what were your experiences? What games did you like/dislike the most and why? How did you find using a one-button control scheme? What are your thoughts on ’up-to-jump?’ Feel free to share your views and experiences in the comments section below.



Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at the_nomad78@outlook.com

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Robocop image from www.emuparadise.me

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