Beloved Spec-chums, we are gathered here in the presence of Almighty Clive to pay homage to the 8-bit Wonder of the World. Lead us not into the foul temptations of Commodore, and keep us from the follies of Amstrad. Our tape heads are pure and our patience for prohibitive loading times remains strong. Thanks be to POKEs.
Yes, OK, owning a Spectrum wasn’t quite a spiritual experience, but it involved enough idiosyncratic weirdness to feel just a little bit cultish at times.
Acceptance into the temple of Speccy would, blasphemously enough, usually occur at Christmas. The system was of such relative expense that it had to be a special family purchase – none of this casually popping down the shops to splurge on a new gaming machine. For some, the arrival of their Spectrum would actually be telegraphed several months prior to the festive period, allowing a seriously unhealthy level of anticipation to build up. Expectations may have been raised to near breaking-point, but this lengthy wait ingrained a passionate dedication; not to mention a subconscious tolerance for epic loading sequences.
Being born late in the era of Uncle Clive, my first encounter was with the somewhat flash-sounding 128k +2 (shamefully, an Amstrad model). It was robbed of the cheerful rubber keys and weird multi-functional shortcuts of my brothers’ 48K, but still possessed the unmistakable smell of moulded plastic and mystique of a hallowed object. Before long, the dismal sounds of Christmas carols had been replaced by the cosy beeping noises of a happy Speccy. The collection of included games was, it must be said, less than impressive.
Oh Mummy! turned out to be an Egyptian-style Pacman variant, Punchy featured synthesised speech so terrifying that it resulted in a lifelong fear of marionettes and Crazy Golf … wasn’t. Treasure Island was rather more entertaining, featuring varied gameplay and some fantastic examples of colour clash – but it wasn’t long before the 48K game collection was being plundered. As were the 48K joysticks, because the freebie ‘stick was so flaccid that heavy breathing could knock it over.
This raises an important point. Upgrading a PC involves some reading around, but researching a new Spectrum could be just as in-depth. A Kempston joystick was desirable, but required an additional interface. Other peripherals like the ever-unreliable Microdrive or a mouse had to be considered; and, having convinced your parents the machine would definitely be used for homework, a printer wouldn’t go amiss either. Of course, it might run a game or two as well …
The thrill of a new Speccy at Christmas was matched only by the bulging C90 cassettes brought home by elder siblings. The cases would glisten with the delicious illegality of goods from a far-off world, though in truth they’d probably just been slapped together by a spotty schoolchild in between a lousy book report. Still, what a treat it was to trawl through the poorly handwritten titles; at first attempting to guess what lay in store from the loading screen, and then trying to blunder through a couple of screens without any instructions. A few efforts would fail to excite, but such hand-picked selections could usually guarantee some degree of quality. Looking back, it’s also notable just how varied these games were – creations like Quazatron and Highway Encounter stubbornly defied simplistic pigeon-holing.
Later in life, there was no longer a need to rely on older relatives to sail the high seas of piracy. Schoolyards were the perfect breeding ground for furtive tape exchanges; a hotbed of excitable young chaps eager to play the latest titles, but lacking the necessary capital to purchase them. To begin with these transactions were undertaken with an edge of fear – mindful that at any moment, F.A.S.T. might storm the gym and arrest everyone in it. Ruination and shame would surely follow, sparking a downward spiral of fines and jail time. Experience would eventually reveal these concerns as ridiculous, resulting in a flood of open C90 copying and swapping. The confident swagger of people who know they’re above an unenforceable law.
However, sometimes even Long John Silver couldn’t deliver the booty. Either because nobody in the area owned a particular title, or some devious copy protection had been put in place by sales-conscious publishers. These occasionally put paid to legitimate attempts to play the game as well, with a table of dark brown numbers printed on a brown background being a particular anti-photocopying favourite. Elite went one step further, forcing players to hold a strange plastic contraption against the television screen to decipher a perplexing code.
These being simpler times, the lure of a big tasty box was sometimes enough to forestall thoughts of theft. Being the first £9.95 game, Sabre Wulf’s plush package probably crept onto a sizeable proportion of wish lists in 1984, as it was certainly out of range of most pocket money savers. Not so the cheap and cheerful £1.99-2.99 budget ranges, which would be tantalisingly displayed in newsagents and indie computer shops across the land. With a moderate amount of parental pestering (or simple autonomy, depending on your age), these games could be a fairly regular purchase. Such impulse spending was a risk however, as innocent eyes are all too easily seduced by inaccurate cover art and ludicrous blurb claims. Those ‘Astounding Graphics!’ all too often resembled the results of a road accident involving a lorry full of pixels.
Happily, there was a way through this minefield. The wiser Spec-chum would consult with a trustworthy publication before parting with any ill-gotten cash. These papery guides also featured the obligatory cover-mounted cassettes, showcasing delicious demos and the odd full game. A personal favourite from the magazine racks was the largely (during the later years) tech-eschewing Your Sinclair – whose gleeful self-referentiality felt like a doorway to a secret club. One in which people said ‘spook!’ an awful lot. Or something.
Naturally, the tiresome parochialism which accompanies all things technology-based even affected rival magazine readerships, though these squabbles would be quickly forgotten when it became necessary to rally against owners of different 8-bit platforms. Subsequently, these home computer factions would unite against console owners – a childish union which still holds true to this day.
Whatever means were used to acquire games for the Speccy, getting them to play could be another matter entirely. The dreaded ‘R Tape Loading Error’ could strike at any moment, though it usually chose to bomb when the ten minute counter was about to finally tick over to zero.
When this happened, it was important to remain rational. For the more technically-minded, wizardry could be attempted by applying some tiny tools to the azimuth screw located inside the tape deck on certain flavours of Speccy. 128K owners could try to load in 48K mode. Those with knowledge of BASIC could try all kinds of arcane programming sorcery. The desperate could ceremonially ‘lay hands’ on the tape and engage in an unspoken pact to not look away from the screen during the loading process. Violence was sometimes the answer. These techniques were of mixed value, and even if they did work, the results didn’t always reflect the amount of effort put in. Chances are you’d finally manage to load Daley Thompson’s Joystick breaking wagglefest after an hour’s tinkering, only to find yourself out of pocket and sporting a severely sprained wrist.
That’s perhaps being a little pessimistic. As previously noted, there was a whole lot of love put into many of these games. Companies like Ultimate and Durell became by-words for creativity, and the individual genius of characters like Julian Gollop shone through their games.
It’s hard to pin-point precisely how originality was able to flourish so widely during this era. Perhaps it was down to the relatively small size of programming teams (often just a lone bedroom coder) or the crippling technical restrictions of the development systems. Whatever the case, it undoubtedly produced classics of enduring influence.
The beauty of the BASIC language meant that anyone could try their hand at joining this hallowed pantheon of game-designing legends… in theory. In practise a Spec-chum could spend all afternoon typing in several pages of code from a book or magazine, only to encounter one of two dispiriting results. Either the listings contained one or more typing errors which rendered the program useless and unusable (without the further programming knowledge necessary to locate and fix the problems), or the amazing game you’d created involved a small ‘o’ character trying to evade capture by several ‘x’ characters on an otherwise blank screen. It seemed that some kind of mathematical mastermind was actually required to achieve anything more useful. The closest an average Joe could ever really get to being an 8-bit programmer would be to buy some threadbare jumpers and not shave for a week.
Sir Clive’s little black box of fun was a doorway to strange worlds, frustrating quirks and a lifetime of gaming addiction. It wasn’t all piracy and social inadequacy, however. A healthy number of titles with two player modes meant there were plenty of opportunities to share experiences with a pal. Spec-chums could even play Target: Renegade in simultaneous multiplayer (take THAT, C64 owners!) and up to eight (count ’em) could crowd around Chaos like dark acolytes, if somebody didn’t mind sitting on the power pack. With groundbreaking games, cheap software and a distinctive culture, the Speccy was a home computing triumph; and we loved every bit of it. Even the rubber keys.
Ok, no, those were just silly.