By Lewis Packwood
The ZX Spectrum took the UK by storm after its launch in 1982. So much so that its creator was awarded with a knighthood the following year for ‘services to British industry’. But although we’re familiar with the story of how Sir Clive Sinclair’s wonder machine changed the face of British computing, his computer’s legacy on the far side of the Iron Curtain is less well known to western gamers. And it’s a legacy from which he never made a penny.
In the early 1980s, computers were hard to come by for the average Russian. Trading restrictions under the communist regime meant that it was almost impossible to import computers from the west, and the few that were smuggled across were hideously expensive by Russian standards. In 1983, the popular magazine Radio put together schematics for its readers on how to build a ‘Micro-80’ computer, one of the first DIY computers available in Russia, but it was difficult to put together, requiring hundreds of often difficult-to-acquire components.
The Micro-80 (Image: credit)
Then in 1985, researchers in Ukraine finally ‘cracked’ the ZX Spectrum chip and managed to build a working Spectrum 48K clone using easy-to-obtain parts. Over the next few years, schematics for various Spectrum clones began circulating, and more than 50 different versions eventually became available, including the ‘Hobbit’ (marketed as a school computer), ‘Baltica’, ‘Pentagon’, ‘Scorpion’, ‘Leningrad’, ‘Didaktik’ (from Czechoslovakia), ‘Spectral’ (from East Germany) and ‘Cobra’ (from Romania). By the late 1980s, just as the first 16-bit computers were emerging in the west, the Russian Spectrum scene was really getting into full swing.
The notion of copyright barely existed in Russia at the time, so there was never any question of sending royalty cheques to Sinclair (or later, Amstrad). This, combined with the use of budget parts, made the clones super cheap, but the rip-off free-for-all also created its fair share of problems. Many of the slight differences in specs between the clones caused software compatibility problems, and some clones couldn’t even load actual official ZX Spectrum games.
On the positive side, however, users and manufacturers were free to up-spec their computers as they saw fit, and many of the later versions were far more powerful than the original ZX Spectrum. The Beta 128 Disk Interface, which was developed by the British company Technology Research Ltd, was incessantly copied and became a staple add-on for Russian Spectrum clones, allowing the Russian Speccys to connect to floppy disk drives rather than cassette decks and thus drastically increasing their storage capacity. Eventually there were even Russian Spectrums with CD-ROM drives. This all meant that Russian coders were able to push the humble Spectrum hardware much harder than their UK counterparts were ever able to, creating some truly impressive games (for the Spectrum, that is).
From 1991, the Spectrum 128K clones started to become widely available, and this signalled the start of the golden age of the Russian Spectrum clones. Back in the west, the Spectrum 128K was old hat by the early Nineties (it first came out in 1985), and people had since moved on to the 16-bit home computers and powerful consoles like the Mega Drive. But in Russia, even after the fall of communism in 1991, information on such new machines was hard to come by; many people weren’t even aware of their existence.
Despite Russia’s emergence into the free market, none of the major gaming computers or consoles of the 1990s were officially released in the country. And even if they had been widely available, they would have been far beyond the purchasing power of the average Russian consumer. By contrast, Spectrum knock-offs could be obtained for just tens of dollars, and Russia became home to a huge and dedicated Speccy user-base, catered for by dozens of specialist magazines; most of which, like Spectrofon, ZX-Format and ZINE, were electronic only and distributed via floppy disk.
Throughout the 1990s, all sorts of unlikely games were ported (without permission) to the humble Speccy by eager Russian coders. Remarkably, several versions of Mortal Kombat appeared on the machine; none of which, it has to be said, bears close resemblance to the original. The effort by Ukraine’s AWS is a full game at least, even if the characters are tiny.
Other versions were little more than demos, but come much closer to recreating the arcade original’s visuals, even if they lack colour.
There are dozens of similarly ambitious ports, many of which exist in multiple versions from different developers. Although they’re often demos rather than full games, they regularly display some astonishing feats of coding. For example, here’s a Speccy version of DOOM from 1997:
There were also ambitious ports of Amiga games like Worms and Dune 2, as well as dodgy conversions of NES games in the form of Dr Mario and Mario Islands. (Incidentally, a Russian clone of the NES called the Dendy emerged in 1992 and became hugely successful, shifting an estimated two million units, but that’s a story for another day.)
Perhaps more interesting than these unlicensed conversions are the unofficial sequels to beloved Spectrum games. The Dizzy series was just as popular in Russia as it was in the UK, and the country’s coders produced a steady stream of Dizzy sequels throughout the 1990s, including Dizzy X: Journey to Russia; Dizzy Y: Return to Russia; Dizzy 8' Dizzy 'A'; Dizzy 'B'; and Drunk Dizzy, to name just a few.
The classic shoot ‘em up Silkworm also got an unofficial sequel in the form of The Main Blow.
But perhaps the most fascinating games to come out of the Russian Spectrum scene were the original games, which are not only technically impressive but also give a fascinating insight into the preoccupations of Russian gamers. Homer Simpson in Russia, for example, shows that the titular character has enduring appeal across the world.
Several games also starred Kolobok, which is a character from an East Slavic fairy tale that shares some similarities with the tale of the Gingerbread Man. Kolobok is a sort of circular yellow head made of bread who eventually meets a grisly end at the paws of a fox after successfully evading numerous fairy tale animals. In the various games, however, he seems to show a previously undisplayed penchant for leaping around on platforms.
And finally, there’s Crime Santa Claus: Deja Vu…
I have no idea what’s going on with Crime Santa Claus: Deja Vu. What’s with the unicorn? Who’s the guy on the top right? WHAT HAPPENED HERE?
I guess some things just don’t translate. But taking a stroll through the vibrant world of the Russian Spectrum scene provides a fascinating glimpse of a world where the Speccy lived on far beyond its supposed death, and became home to some extremely bizarre and impressive games in the process.
Lewis Packwood is co-author of A Most Agreeable Pastime.
Top image credit.