[RetroComputers] ZX Spectrum turns 35!


If you were born outside Europe it could be difficult for you to understand the love the old continent felt for the Speccy. But if you’re european and in particular english you can’t help but fondly remember that black keyboard with the rainbow on the bottom right side. That small and affordable home computer was one of the first benchmarks for millions of teens all around Europe in the 80s and divided the continent in two: the Speccists and the Commodorians. Even considering the love I nourish for the Commodore in its various formats (mainly C16 and C64) in my heart there’s always been a room reserved for the ZX Spectrum.

The story in a nutshell

Sir Clive Sinclair wasn’t new in the home computers world. His company, Sinclair Research Ltd. already put on the market two machines, ZX80 in 1980 and ZX81 in 1981. Following the easy and effective philosophy of cost avoidance, in 1982 the company decided to upgrade its range of computers and develop a third model, provisionally named ZX82, where it was possible to implement a color monitor, a feature that was absent in the first two specimen. The idea proved to be smart and cutting the costs as much as possible the ZX81 Color, commercially rebranded as ZX Spectrum made its debut on UK shelves in 1982, after the official launch of April 23rd, exactly 35 years ago today.

The new name was chosen to remark the possibility to have colors and this explains the famous rainbow strip on the computer that later on became a sort of unofficial brand for the retro computing and retro gaming.

In the UK, an incredible forge of home computers during the 80s, the Spectrum had many rivals; not only the most famous Commodore 64, but also the Dragon 32, the Oric-1 and Oric Atmos, the BBC Micro and later the Amstrad CPC.

The Spectrum was retailed as low-end home computer and the launch price was set to 125£ fot the 16k version and 175£ for the 48k version, later cut to 99£ and 129£. Not bad for an home computer back then, since the cut prices correspond to actual 350£/450£ (410€/525€ or 435$/555$) and considering also that another low-end computer, the for sure more powerful Amiga 600, was retailed at more than today’s 720€. Sinclair developed also an expansion pack for the 16k, allowing the computer to have 48k or RAM for the price of today’s 160€ (135£/170$)

The heart

Deep in the heart of ZX Spectrum beats one of the most longeve CPUs of all time, the Zilog Z80 @ 3.5 MHz

The hands

Obviously the main input device of the Speccy is the keyboard. The first models featured rubber keys and if you’ve never tried them you don’t know what you’ve missed. The soft sensation under the fingers and the queit sound of the keys was wonderful. Unfortunately this kind of keyboard was replaced in the latter models with one with plastic keys (as most keybopard have even today), losing that bit of romance to the touch.

Apart from the keyboard, Kempston developed its Interface, allowing to use a joystick with the Atyari 2600 standard port. Sinclair itself instead released the ZX Interface 2, which featured two joystick ports. When Amstrad released the ZX Spectrum +2, a built in joystick was already available and compatible with the ZX Interface 2.

The eyes

ZX Spectrum video output was through an RF modulator that was the best solution with the common television back then. The text can be displayed on an area of 24×32 lines, each one 8 pixels tall and 8 pixels wide. The palette included 15 different shades, based on a set 7 colours with two different brightness and, obviously, the black. The screen resolution is 256×192 pixel but to save RAM in low res every character cell has only one background and one foreground color, and the remainning colours were kept separated from the ones used in text.

This limitation was very distinctive and one of the major issues in the 8-bit computers during the 80s and led to an effect called attribute clash or bleeding: in other words, since only two colours could be used in every 8×8 cell, when on screen, especially during the games, there were sprites that occupied an area which wasn’t perfectly delimited in the 64 pixels section, the image resulted with false color It’s like you draw a background color and after you draw your spirite: the effect is more or less the same. The image below can give you an idea

However, who know why, even if this crude graphics were dramatically  unsuitable for games, ZX Spectrum had an extraordinary success even (and mainly) as a game machine, and people love these horrible visuals (me toooooo!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂 ). Very hard to conceive 😉

The games

A hell of softwares and games were released for the Spectrum and tons of cassettes were available il the 80s amost everywhere sometimes at a very cheap prices (less than 3£). The most complete online compendium of Spectrum games is World of Spectrum that lists more than 10k (ten fu***ng thousand!) different titles. Even if the poor performances of the computer, the low detailed graphics and the not measure up sound, the Spectrum was an incredible forge of games and even though most of them (really most of them) are absolutely awful, for some reason are loved and worshipped by millions of fans all over the world

R-Type

It could be difficult to arient among all these games but in 2012 techradar compiled a list of 30 best games for the computer which is the following:

  1. Elite
  2. R-Type
  3. Chuckie Egg
  4. Manic Miner
  5. Knight Lore
  6. Back to Skool
  7. Football Manager
  8. Lunar Jetman
  9. Horace Goes Skiing
  10. Boulder Dash
  11. Sim City
  12. Underwurlde
  13. Super Hang-On
  14. Jet Set Willy
  15. Rainbow Islands
  16. Tornado Low Level
  17. Ant Attack
  18. Chase H.Q.
  19. Deus Ex Machina
  20. Lode Runner
  21. Gauntlet
  22. Fantasy World Dizzy
  23. The Hobbit
  24. Atic Atac
  25. Tetris
  26. Hyper Sports
  27. The Way of the Exploding Fist
  28. Daley Thompson’s Decathlon
  29. Skool Daze
  30. The Great Escape

Among them Elite and R-Type really pushed the hardware to the limit and are a great example of what the Speccy could do in the hands of someone really skilled. However I would like to cite a game which is not in this list, Cobra, that, for the capability of the Speccy, was great game back then, even considering the classic colour issues of the computer.

Elite

I’d like to cite also “my” Pssst, the first game I’ve ever played in my life on an home computer in 1990 that sooner or later (I hope sooner) will be my again, along with a shining ZX Spectrum 48k.

For further information, just to have another opinion, here’s the top-30 list you can find on World fo Spectrum

  1. R-Type
  2. The Great Escape
  3. Fairlight
  4. Turbo Esprit
  5. The Trap Door
  6. Movie
  7. Quazatron
  8. Myth: History in the Making
  9. Bomb Jack
  10. Where Time Stood Still
  11. Three Weeks in Paradise
  12. Sir Fred
  13. Nebulus
  14. Head over Heels
  15. Flying Shark
  16. Avalon
  17. Ant Attack
  18. Rex
  19. Ranarama
  20. Dun Darach
  21. Zynaps
  22. The Sentinel
  23. Nether Earth
  24. Exolon
  25. Dragontorc
  26. Marsport
  27. The Lords of Midnight
  28. Deathchase
  29. Jetpac
  30. Cybernoid

The legacy

It’s difficult to translate the success of the Spectrum in terms of sales. Someone say that all the Spectrum line (so the original 16k/48k, Spectrum +, 128, and the Amstrad branded +2, +3, +2A, +2B and +3B) sold around 4-5 millions on units: not bad for an home computer that hit pretty much only the european market.

The two original Spectrum models came out in different versions or “issues” (1, 2, 3, 3B, 4A, 4B, 5 and 6A) were followed by Spctrum +, developed in the summer of 1984 and retailed around the end of the year at the price of 180£. While the hardware was the same, there were some cosmetic improvements, such as a new kepyboard with plastic keys and a more squared shaoe. The last fully Sinclair computer was the Spectrum 128, developed along with the spanish company Investronica. This computer is larger that the other ones due to the big squandered on the right side of the keyboard. This time was improved also the hardware, especially the RAM that was now 128k. Then there were a serial port, an RGB jack and an actual sound chip.

After Sinclair declared bankrupt in 1986, Amstrad take over the company and released the Spectrum +2, famous for being the first with an incorporated tape recorder (Datacorder), while the rest of the hardware was pretty much a slightly revisited version of Spectrum 128. The year after Amstrad released the Spectrum +3, where the place in which the +2 had the Datacorder was occupied by a Floppy Disk Drive (FDD). The original retail price was 249£, then lowered to 199£. Amstrad released also three modified versions of the last two Spectrums (+2A, +2 and +3B) but at the end of 1992 discontinued the production, ending the glorious decade of the computer.

The Spectrum left a big hole in millions of european teens hearts and even today the computer has a wide range of followers and aficionados and a large number of developers continue to release homebrew games for the computer. As a testimony of this passion in 2015 Retro Computers Ltd. released the Spectrum Vega, a console to play the old Speccy games. A further evolution of Vega, the Vega + that should be a portable version of the Spectrum, has been announced again and again but still not released.

On the other side of the ocean the computer never had a good reputation. Was licensed to Timex that produced the Timex Sinclair 2086. Timex portuguese division later released Timex Computer 2048 and 2068 (NTSC and PAL). Unofficial clones were also priduced, especially in eastern Europe, such as the Didaktik in Russia. According to wikipedia a total of 53 unofficial Spectrum clones were developed in the world.

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