Monday, April 23, 2012

Memories of My Spectrum

The ZX Spectrum, arguably Britain's first famous home computer, is 30 today. I have fond memories of my 48K Spectrum, and its big sister, the 128K which came later on. Using the Spectrum was often a frustrating experience. There was no screen - you plugged it directly into a tv (in my case an ancient black and white thing in the dining room). It had a tendency to overheat and reset itself, and it ran programs from a tape recorder - so you'd have to wait up to 10 minutes to play a game, again with the random tendency for the uploading of data to get to the end and then just reset. The keys were rubbery, a bit unpleasant to touch, and you had to make copious use of combinations of different keys in order to get it to display certain commands like "POKE" (which I never really understood - it was very different from poking in social media).

Quickly, my weekly comics (Jackpot and Buster) were replaced by ZX Spectrum magazines, and I would spend hours typing in programs in order to play a very basic-looking game that probably had a typo in it and wouldn't work anyway. I suppose it helped me with my keyboard skills, and kept me off the streets if nothing else.

On the rare occasions when I got a Spectrum game to actually work, the experience of playing the game itself was often just as frustrating. Games were not meant to be actually won, so programmers tended to make them as difficult as possible to complete. Sometimes they would have weird bugs, like "The Hobbit" which always froze when I got to the cellar of the wood elves. It was usually impossible to save data, so if you died, you had to go all the way back to the start and do it again. But many of those games are indelibly marked in my memory. Here are my favourite ones.

The Hobbit

The aforementioned Hobbit was one of my favourite "adventure" textual games. I loved text adventures more than any other type of game because it was like reading a book with endless possibilities and you had to use your imagination to supplement the lack of fantastic graphics. There was the feeling with these games that you could go anyway and say anything, even though in reality most of what you typed in would be ignored unless it fit a very specific set of instructions relevant to only one point of the game. But I loved how The Hobbit took a great novel and let you play through it. I loved that there were TWO mazes in it (which I spent hours getting lost in and trying to map). I loved that you could talk to Thorin and Gandalf (even though they didn't have much to say), and I loved the graphics - which at the time appeared to be amazingly sophisticated and complex.

Jet Set Willy

A truly amazing platform-based game which had the shocking innovation of allowing the player to wander between different screens, each one a room in a giant mansion. As the tune "If I Were A Rich Man" played on a loop, you had to jump, run and avoid weird moving objects, and collect strange sparkling ones. Occasionally, if you went through the wrong hole, you'd get stuck in a weird infinity loop and lose all your lives in an instant. It wasn't fair and I'm sure it was impossible to compete without resorting to cheats.


This was one of the first games I ever played when I got my computer, and the whole family spent Christmas Day in awed shock. Someone appeared to have used a very weird drug trip as the premise for a computer game. It asked me for my name and then later on referred to me by it - as we were unfamilar with what computers were capable of, we half-believed that this game was somehow watching us and responding to our movements. It was a text adventure, which involved moving by typing in numbers and collecting various strange objects like a hula hoop, valium and a pork pie. The B side of the cassette contained a surreal pop song, and the game was actually a real-life competition - you had to play it to discover clues to where an actual golden sundial was hidden somewhere in the UK.

Sabre Wulf

This was my favourite game from the successful Ultimate stable. You were an explorer in a huge jungle maze, and you had to collect four pieces of an amulet to escape, and also avoid a wolf whose territory extended over several screens and could run very fast. There were different coloured orchids and if you picked them it would result in various effects (blue made you run faster, yellow sent you to sleep etc). It was deliciously garish.

Knight Lore

Another "Ultimate" game which brought the innovation of 3D graphics - this was mind-blowing when it came out, and inspired dozens of copy-cats. Unfortunately the game itself was a bit boring and also difficult. You were the same explorer from Sabre Wulf, but this time you turned into a werewolf occasionally, and you were trapped in a castle, having to collect objects and move blocks around to get past obstacles. I always seemed to get killed by falling metal spikey balls :(


A graphical 2D room-based adventure featuring a knight who had to move around, collecting objects and giving them to various people or casting spells in order to open up new bits of a castle. What made this game interesting was its use of "Windimation" - a system where menus would open up and you selected an option from one of several. This was a somewhat more forgiving game in that it didn't kill you off at a moment's notice but allowed you to think through how to do things.

The Trap Door

A crazy, colourful game based on the children's animation series, this game was fiendishly difficult - you had to make various recipes by gathering weird objects and putting them in a cauldron. Quite often, the objects were alive (like worms) and would run around trying to escape from you, while a spider would also chase after them trying to eat them. Playing this cute looking game often induced feelings of panic in me as time ran out.

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