Sunday marked the ZX Spectrum’s 35th birthday, something of a terrifying revelation seeing as it was the personal computer of my formative years. It was also the first games machine that my family owned, so it’s probably fair to say my life’s trajectory owes much to the ZX Spectrum and Manic Miner, the very first game I ever played.
Yesterday, while we attempted to decide how best to celebrate the Spectrum’s anniversary on Kotaku UK, I stumbled across the big box of Spectrum games that I'd amassed as a child - mostly shitty budget titles bought with my own pocket money, none of which I’ve seen (or really even thought about) for over 30 years.
In case you’re curious, here are the games in a question (a fraction of the ones I remember owning, it has to be said), each looking frighteningly well-preserved.
With nothing better to do with my time on a Monday night, I thought I’d go through each game one by one, and see what kind of memories they stirred. It turned out to be pretty fun! So join me on this half-remembered nostalgic jaunt through a childhood with the ZX Spectrum.
Knightmare (Activision, 1987)
The game of the legendary television show in which obnoxious children shouted obnoxious things at grown-up actors dressed as wizards in front of a green screen; instantly improved on the show’s formula by jettisoning the obnoxious children. Apparently the game was good - and an actual proper fantasy adventure - but I could never get out of the first room.
(Editor’s note: I had exactly the same problem!!! Screw that opening room.)
Wonder Boy (Activision, 1987)
“Highly fun and addictive - capturing all the fun of the cartoon original,” says the box. This was a licensed version of the Sega arcade classic that, for reasons unknown, chose to advertise itself with a picture of an unconscious baby dressed as a caveman on the cover. Given that this is a proper licensed game, and not one of the million cheap knock-offs that polluted the Spectrum era, I’m guessing this was a birthday present and not something I bought with my own £1.
Spectra Smash (Romik Software, 1983)
I’ve no idea where this - or any one of the four extremely low-budget “Romik Software” games in my collection - came from, but Spectra Smash, enthusiastically known as “Shooting Down Towers” in our household, was like digital crack to my family. I cannot remember a single day going by when this wasn’t on-screen. It’s also how our Kempston Interface joystick got broken.
VU-3D (Sinclair Research, 1982)
A primitive 3D design and modelling programme. I remember this being hellishly complicated to use, with an appallingly unintuitive interface. However, it was novel enough to hold my interest for a while, and I did finally manage to create something that looked a bit like a circle.
Manic Miner (Bug-Byte Software, 1983)
An, er, alternatively procured version of Matthew Smith’s platform classic; nightmarishly surreal and hard as nails. It wasn’t until 20 years later that I managed to finish it, using a cheat on an emulated version. As a bonus, this compilation also featured the Hobbit text adventure game, which young me thought was stupid but my mother finished twice.
Programme Tape (Me, fuck-knows)
I’m throwing this one in because it’s awesome. 16 games diligently typed up from the back of Your Sinclair magazine; it’s a near certainty that these were all so shitty that they never got played more than once. This is the kind of thing that got other people into games development.
Shark Attack (Romik Software, 1983)
The second of four games that came in the bumper Romik Software pack. For one or two players! Shark Attack saw you dragging an “atomic net” around the screen, trying to separate the sharks without hitting the octopuses. I preferred this to Spectra Smash because of the near-photorealistic octopuses. Incidentally, I’ve only just realised that you apparently play the entire game as a bright red swastika.
Spiky Harold (Firebird Software, 1986)
Proof, if proof were ever needed, that sometimes the box art is considerably more interesting than the actual game. It’s one of dozens upon dozens of bland platform games that I managed to accumulate for the Spectrum, and about the only thing I remember is the the horrible, never-ending rendition of Flight of the Bumblebee. This, incidentally, is from Firebird’s premium Silver 199 Range. Most budget games at the time cost 99p, so this one really did promise the earth and deliver nothing.
Aquarius (Bug-Byte Software, 1983)
Looking at this now, I’m 99% sure I stole it from a boy at my school, probably because it was made by Bug-Byte who also published Manic Miner, a game I adored. I remember nothing about the game itself, and the box doesn’t even have screenshots on it. According to the inlay, “You are the commander of a frogman team and your task is to destroy the death machines which an enemy government has built in secret locations around the world,” which sounds quite exciting. This next bit has me properly intrigued though: “The top secret code is given to you at the start of you mission - DON’T FORGET IT!”
Chequered Flag (Sinclair Research, 1983)
If you’re not old enough to remember the Spectrum, and ever feel even the slightest urge to moan about Forza, Gran Turismo, or any other modern driving game, watch the video below and count your blessings.
Rock Star Ate My Hamster (Code Masters, 1989)
Just one game in a long line of Spectrum era titles that promised far more than the primitive technology could ever deliver. Rock Star Ate My Hamster purported to be a comedy rock star sim, but mostly seemed to consist of a bunch of indecipherable menus that young me could never entirely fathom. “Pick your band, get shock-horror publicity, gig, release records, make stunning videos,” says the box, alongside “WARNING This game contains material that some people may find offensive”. I think that might have been referring to the badly rendered pair of Page 3 boobs - something games still seem to get wrong 30 years on.
Star Wreck (Alternative Software, 1987)
A satirical Star Trek parody text adventure which, judging by the comedy bloomers and jokey USS Paralysed “pun” emblazoned on the front cover, may have been filled with delightful bawdy British humour. Something gaming had an awful lot of back then, but which is sadly missing in this day and age.
Devil’s Crown (Mastertronic, 1985)
“Avoid pirate ghosts, killerfish and other nasties as you complete your underwater task to replace seven jewels in a cursed golden crown on the wreck of a pirate ship,” says the blurb. I remember absolutely nothing about this, although the cover makes it look brilliant. I’d say roughly 99% of my games were bought on the promise that they’d transport me away to the wonderful worlds on the front cover. Obviously it was the start of a lifetime of disappointment.
Sweevo’s World (Gargoyle Games, 1986)
The only isometric adventure in my collection, bizarre given how popular they were back in the day. It’s not a game I remember with any fondness, but it does feature a robot Stan Laurel on the front cover for reasons unknown.
Now Games (Virgin Games, 1985)
I loved every one of the six games in this compilation, even though I mostly knew them through the screenshots on the box because none of them ever loaded properly more than twice. This particular collection contained Lords of Midnight (review by child me: boring), Strangeloop ("a massive arcade adventure in the abandoned robot factory," according to the inlay), Arabian Nights ("the saga of Imrahi the Kahldar Prince on a quest to free the Princess Anita from the harem of the evil Sultan Saldain"), Brian the Bloodaxe (a really fucking surreal platformer with a questionable take on historical accuracy given its mix of tanks, medieval knights and vikings), plus Falcon Patrol II and Pyjamara, the latter of which was a bonkers game about escaping a nightmare, and continued the 80s games industry’s bizarre fascination with being chased by murderous food.
Spitting Image (Domark, 1988)
A largely crappy 2D fighter based on the popular 80s satirical show, best known for its rubber puppet renditions of famous people. If you’re curious, the cover features puppets of Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Ayatollah Khomeini, and PW Botha, all of whom are now dead. One of the characters could (I think) pull down his pants and and do a wee on his opponent which, in retrospect, isn’t exactly the cutting-edge of political satire.
Streaker (Bulldog Software, 1987)
Bought because willies are funny. Turns out it didn’t have any willies in.
Jet Set Willy (Software Projects, 1984)
A game about a millionaire who isn’t allowed to go to bed until he’s cleaned up his mansion from the mess he made the night before. This was the sequel to Manic Miner and was, if at all possible, even more nightmarishly surreal, which is probably why I spent so many happy hours mapping the entire thing out. I remember mutant rolling pins, weird things in the greenhouse, a demon in the chapel, a beach to nowhere, and a entranceway to hell if you jumped through the driveway just right. This, incidentally, says it’s the ‘Final Frontier’ edition, which I think fixed the original Attic bug that caused you to instantly die on leaving the room in any direction. Still more stable than a Bethesda release-day game.
Ghostbusters (Activision, 1984)
A surprisingly entertaining sim take on ghostbusting, which sees you deploying the Ecto-1 around New York via an overhead map, then going all side-on when you reach a location and try to trap a spook without crossing the streams. I was absolutely terrible at this, and usually died after about five minutes once the entire screen started flashing due to poor planning. I think I got to the final area once but ruined it all instantly by pressing the wrong button. Far superior to the shitty side-scrolling Ghostbusters 2, also in my collection.
(Editor’s note: This is still the best Ghostbusters game around, adored it, and the only one where managing the business matters!)
All screenshots sourced from the inimitable Worldofspectrum.org