To celebrate the 35th anniversary of the release of the ZX Spectrum in April 1982, 48k boy Rich Stanton looks back at the history behind Uncle Clive’s wonder machines.
The biggest market for videogames in Europe, to this day, is the United Kingdom – Eastern European states and Russia may be larger overall, but have the reputation of being somewhat black markets (this is an increasingly historical viewpoint, but remains true). And what cracked the UK market was like nothing else: the Sinclair ZX80 home computer.
Clive Sinclair was in the island's great lineage of tinkering inventors and had achieved fame through low-cost electronics products – anything from digital watches to portable TVs and calculators. Sometimes, as with the watch, the product was a dud and nearly bankrupted Sinclair, but he played a big role in bringing electronics to the mass market.
The ZX80 was very much in this tradition. While America had the jaw-dropping but pricey Apple II, Sinclair produced a computer kit that sold at an unbelievably low price – £79.95 for the kit (with soldering required), or £99.95 assembled. The aesthetics probably had Steve Jobs choking on his cornflakes, and the 1Kb of memory certainly did, but this price point made the ZX80 truly accessible to a generation of young children and adults.
It quickly became Britain's fastest-selling home computer and, over the next few years, would see the improved ZX81 (March 1981) and ZX Spectrum (April 1982). The last model, in its 48k and 128k incarnations, saw the greatest videogames – though sadly Uncle Clive himself had no interest in the emerging medium. Sinclair's ambitions in creating a mass-market computer had been rather grander than a de facto games machine, but sadly de fact of the mass market was that one type of software sold: games. Almost every Spectrum owner used it to play videogames, to the exclusion of all other possible activities. Sinclair never liked this.
Luckily many others did, from the start, and so Sinclair's machines resulted in an outpouring of hobbyist creativity. The machines were relatively easy to program for, and games were sold on audio tapes that could be easily copied – an entrepreneur's dream setup. The era of the bedroom coder had begun.
Many of the names that made it 'big' are now forgotten: particularly early hits like Miner 2049er, developed by Big Five Software, which popularised platforming games on the Sinclair machines before the release of Super Mario Bros. soon afterwards made it look like a fossil.
Those that retain some vitality are the more experimental and freeform equivalents. Chuckie Egg was released in 1983, programmed by Nigel Alderton, and tasked you with nicking eggs while dodging the understandably angry hens. Chuckie Egg had fluid movement and a graceful jumping arc, but was endlessly replayable thanks to randomised enemy patterns and your inability to jump over hens to escape a corner. It even had a brilliant, surreal twist: throughout the game you're watched by an expressionless duck, caged in the top corner. Beat the game and things start up again. But this time the duck is free, and flies around the level before homing in on you with pant-wetting precision.
Similarly experimental, but even nuttier, was 1983's Manic Miner. Here you play Willy, trapped in a mine with a dwindling air supply, over a series of 20 themed rooms filled with deadly toilet seats, psychopathic penguins and poisonous pansies. Backed by out-of-copyright classical compositions, Willy has to nab a key and escape each screen as his air bar ticks ever-further down.
Manic Miner was the first game from developer Matthew Smith, but Jet Set Willy is his lasting achievement – a complex twitch platformer full of tricks, where Willy has to clean the mansion he bought after escaping the first game with armfuls of lucre. The surrealist strain in British games like this probably owe as much to Monty Python as Dali, and Jet Set Willy remains fondly-remembered for set-pieces like 'The Nightmare Room' – filled with ghostly housekeepers, Willy suddenly turns into a flying mouse and has to dodge giant feet.
There are many more great games in a catalogue estimated at over 2400 titles, but it's worth ending by considering what was particular about the commercial environment the Sinclair machines created. They were only really a success in the UK, and of modest capabilities, but awakened a huge games-buying appetite that was capable of supporting a large development community. The Sinclair machines were also relatively easy to code for, dirt cheap, and upgraded several times.
This meant it could support a wide range of both authors and developers. Julian Gollop's Spectrum strategy titles are classic designs like Rebelstar (1986), where you control a group of raiders who have to infiltrate a moon base and destroy the core computer – before being hunted down by the AI defence squad. Rebelstar only had a single map but made it replayable by mixing deep strategic elements with a dash of the unpredictable – such as a raider panicking if morale gets low.
Rebelstar also introduced 'opportunity fire,' an incredibly important mechanic for strategy games whereby units 'covering' a patch of ground can fire as opposing units move across them. The basic design of Rebelstar and its sequel Laser Squad underpins the brilliant XCOM series of games to the present day, while other Gollop titles are still admired for the elegance of their interlocking tactical options. Chaos, for example, casts players against each other as wizards summoning creatures to do battle – but you can also create illusions that, depending on the mind-games in front of the telly, might swing a battle.
These videogames have a great purity beyond their standard scenarios. Whether it's the simple inclusion of mind-games as a key gameplay element in Chaos, or the way Gollop adds a realtime element to turn-based strategy with 'opportunity fire', they are games with the clarity to understand what players might want to do in a given situation. The logic is always elegant enough to let them.
The opposite extreme to such refined takes on established genre is designers experimenting with the form itself. Designer Mel Croucher, who by 1984 was a veteran of the system's software landscape, teamed up with coder Andrew Stagg for Deus Ex Machina. The phrase 'God into the Machine' originated in the irreconcilable entanglements Greek plays would often reach, which were solved by a god appearing on-stage to sort out the problems with a bit of commandment. But the phrase does resonate with a game built around raising a living being, from foetal stage to old age, via a machine.
The creature is a 'mutant', some kind of unwanted side-effect from genetics trials, and exists in a nightmare dystopia that owes more than a little to 1984. Deus Ex Machina was also more ambitious than a mere videogame: this was a multimedia project that came bundled with essential atmosphere in the form of an ambient soundtrack, interspersed with dialogue, designed to be played in synchronicity with the game. The game itself played out as abstract minigames, with everything themed around nurturing and caring for the creature.
It's even more of a weird experience now, because in 1984 Deus Ex Machina was presenting a cutting-edge society through reasonably impressive technology. The current era makes even the Spectrum's best software look horribly dated, but oddly enough this retains a hypnotic charm even now – the huge sprites, gentle style of play, and unsettling background chatter still create an original headspace.
With such big ideas and sculpted execution, Deus Ex Machina was released to a great critical reception, mainstream interest, and almost complete commercial failure. It was probably always a hard sell but the project's nature and high cost to the consumer, in a market built on budget compilations, meant many traditional retailers simply wouldn't stock it.
Finally, the oddballs. Pure excellence and lofty artistic ambitions are one side of history, but it wouldn't be complete without the likes of Skool Daze. Created by a husband and wife team, Skool Daze is a genuine charmer that takes the mundane and makes something memorable. You play schoolboy Eric, and on-screen can see the whole school and other characters – the headmaster, teachers, the bully, the swot and so on. Your goal is to get Eric's report card out of the headmaster's safe, but there were countless ways of doing this. And the pleasure of Skool Daze wasn't in beating the game anyway, but in playing around with it – causing mischief for others to take the blame, setting traps, or just watching the little people tick over.
The Spectrum was the original computer for the masses. It just so happened that this mass was on one island. Clive Sinclair holds an odd place in British society, a genuine superstar long since dropped from the limelight, regarded as an amusing boffin by some and as a failure by others (Sinclair's post-Spectrum V-5 electric bike is a famous disaster). But for anyone who grew up gaming in 1980s Britain, the reason Sir Clive Sinclair has his nickname is genuine affection: the Spectrum will always be the daddy, and he will always be Uncle Clive.
This is an edited extract from A Brief History of Videogames