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Happy St. Spectrum's Day!

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Featured post Aw, he doesn't look a day over 29.

As it is only appropriate for the entire internet to point out, the ZX Spectrum is 30th years old today. (If you don’t count the ZX81, which apparently we don’t.) And so it further seems only appropriate to write a nostalgic piece remembering that rubber-keyed lovely. Except, well, I was four. And my memories of being four are mostly about Mr Men books. I remember one being in our house, I remember the rubber keys, but honestly, after that, I’ve no way to know if I’m just invented memories based on my far more acute recollections of the 128K that came out four years later. (This is brilliant. I’m the oldest on RPS, and for once I get to feel too young.) So instead I’ve asked around. Asked old people.

It’s that or I reel off lists of clichés, like telling you how I remember the white Tippex line on the volume wheel of our tape cassette player, so the games would load correctly. So let’s, well, let other, older people do that.

One of the oldest people I know is Stuart Campbell. You may have read about him in history books – a cloudy figure who made his high-haired name in the days of Spectrum magazine Your Sinclair. But you probably didn’t know he ran a software company developing games for the Speccy when he was still a teenager.

“The software company I formed with a friend got paid by the government through the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, in late 1983,” explains the ancient Scot. Scorpion Software created nine games during their existence, before terminating the business upon the discovery of drink and girls. And what did they earn from this year-long enterprise? “Very, very little,” wheezes out Mr S. Campbell. “We spent most of it on Cadbury’s Flakes, and a book on machine code that I still haven’t read.”

So how does this 30th birthday, if you don’t count the ZX81, make him feel? I’ll bet it’s old. He must feel old. “It makes me feel like aggressively and belligerently counting the ZX81. Why wouldn’t you?” Which is a reasonable point. But I’ll go with: Because it doesn’t have “Spectrum” in its name, and thus doesn’t earn the affectionate, cloying nickname, “Speccy”. Is that the reason? “I blame the Jews,” came the reply, a mist forming over his eyes. Then he snapped back to the room. “The ZX81 was the real breakthrough, but it doesn’t get nearly so much credit.”

The two systems combined, it seems fair to say, were a pretty definitive part of the life of the Old Man of games journalism. “Incalculably vast,” he says. Then waking up from an impromptu nap adds, “Except you could probably calculate it if you had a Spectrum. It was sort of like a first taste of the internet. I used my Speccy to work out things mathematically that I could never have done with pen and paper or even a calculator. It was a crude illustration of the power of accessible technology. Also, Horace And The Spiders.”

It’s hard to think of someone older than Splash Damage‘s Ed Stern. Responsible for writing stories and sitting in the corner with a blanket over his lap, he too started with the ZX81, and was then forced to play on Spectrums at friends’ houses. “The very notion of a ‘home computer’ was still sort of astonishing,” he shouted at me while looking around, confused. “Everyone knew proper computers had enormous reel-to-reel tapes, and made clacking noises. So the little, creaking black plastic thing didn’t seem quite plausible at first.”

It was certainly quite the revolution. And there was more to it than simply their being a computer in your home. There was something special about that computer. “Character,” says Campbell. “Everything about it had a friendly feel, from the crisp, clear OS design to the simple BASIC that wouldn’t let you enter lines of code that didn’t make sense. There was a very British, very chummy and clubby vibe around it, from the Big Brother figure at the head of the cult (Uncle Clive) to the magazines that sprang up around it. The C64 just didn’t have that.”

“It was important because it was the one with an erotic rubber keyboard,” says Kieron Gillen, a man too old to write for RPS any more. “I mean, it wasn’t the first home computer. It wasn’t even the first computer normal people could afford. It was the first good computer which normal people could afford.” But surely, I asked the ancient man of comics, it felt primitive compared to the arcades? “Oh yeah,” he creaked. “But it was different. Because it was in a home, for a start. There was an element of arcane-proto-PC stuff to it. Getting a game working on the Spectrum was a feat akin to magic.” Go on, tell us about that old timer. “You connected it to any old tape player, with an octopus-like web of cables. If it didn’t work, you fiddled with the sound levels. You had to program words in to make it work…” I lost him for a moment here, as he stared out of the window, a single tear rolling through the creases of his cheek. “And the nature of the games were different,” he finally continued. “The idea of an extensive adventure you lost yourself in was kinda insane.”

First owning a Commodore 16, there was no game that Gillen could remember was worth playing on that beige creature. “Conversely, the Spectrum was a gateway to everything. It had a crack at everything. You played arcade games. You played strategy games. You played games which you had no idea what genre they were, as people were just fucking making it up as they went along.” But why? “Because the Spectrum was so much cheap. It meant that all sorts of people could use it. Both as consumers and as creators.”

Was it more significant than, say, the NES? “More significant is very subjective term,” says crotchety pre-pensioner Stuart Campbell. “In terms of relation to the modern games industry, the NES is clearly vastly more significant in almost every measurable sense. I think the influence of the Speccy, and the other 8-bit machines, is only starting to return now, in the shape of the indie/smartphone markets.” That’s presumably more in the sense of their accessibility, rather than their content? “I mean that it opened doors for creativity in a way that consoles never did and never can. And not just in the obvious ways, in terms of development. The 8-bit machines made a vast range of games viable and accessible. When shops are full of games costing £1.99 rather than £40, and when playgrounds are full of kids swapping C90s of copied stuff, gamers get exposed to an enormous breadth of originality and invention that doesn’t happen with console games.” Which, he argues, in turn leads to people exploring and innovating for themselves, both as consumers and creators. “Almost every indie game you cover on RPS, and all the stuff I love in the App Store, had its genesis in the 8-bit home-computing era.”

See, that's what a Spectrum really looked like!

There’s no one alive older than my dad, currently writing a diary series on Grimrock for us. He cleared up some of my hazy memory of the time. “I bought a 16K Spectrum in 1983 from WH Smiths for £95,” he recalled, through the mists. “It was after the price reduction so it must have been a Christmas present (that we could barely afford).” Aha, so I would have been five when this stuff I can’t remember happened. My memories kick in when it comes to the 128K, which I’ve just learned for the first time we got early. My dad was writing reviews for Electrical Radio Trading at the time, and we were sent an advanced build of the 128K to review in 1985. “No one ever asked for it back,” says my dad, and it died in around 1990.

Personal memories of the machine are many and varied. I’m fully expecting to read yours below. One of mine is extremely specific. A black box with red keys. Which was hard to explain until I blew the dust off my father and asked him to explain. “1985 I was given a DK’tronics Keyboard by a patient who was importing them. This was a black case into which the Spectrum motherboard and power supply could be put, and it had plastic keys that behaved like typewriter keys.” He then started rambling about ZX Printers, aluminium rolls, and terrifying burning smells, before having a well earned nap. But waking him and propping a mug of Horlicks in his hands, I dug a bit deeper to find out just how early he planted the adventure bug in my brain. It turns out, seemingly, almost before there were adventure games.

“I had read about adventure games, and not knowing anyone daft enough to play Role Playing Games in the living room, looked for computerised versions. After reading Ian Livingstone’s “Warlock of Firetop Mountain” and a ZX81 listing in ZX Computing Magazine, I thought that I could write a program based on both.”

That was the magic of the 80s. What Stuart was talking about above, that iPhone-like ubiquity of it being possible to develop. My dad continues, “It grew it into a randomised mapless “adventure” called Warlock that ZX Computing Magazine bought for £30 and published in 1984.”

And of course there’s one other rather key accompaniment to the Speccy. The magazines that told us to call it a Speccy. While no one in their right mind read Sinclair User, names like Crash and Your Sinclair will come up again and again. For Stuart Campbell, he was reading both before he started writing for the latter. Kieron, slightly younger but still extraordinarily old, was reading the same. “The Spectrum was the gateway to me falling in love with the games press, hence everything,” he says. “I came into the Spectrum slightly too late for prime-time CRASH, but Your Sinclair was blooming.” And the same was true for me, albeit a couple of years later still. Without YS I’d be nothing, just a jelly on the floor.

So thank you, Spectrum. Thank you for existing, for being the PC’s great grandfather. And may the 23rd April forever more be known as St. Spectrum’s Day. Celebrate by playing some Speccy games right now!

Oh PS, I said to Stuart, there’s no way I can use that line about the Jews. I’m chopping it out. “Then I withdraw my consent!” came his cantankerous reply. I explained that I didn’t think that would make any difference. “You’ll be hearing from my lawyers, Goldberg, Cohen & Rosenthal.”

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founding robots of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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