How the ZX Spectrum Helped Make the 80s Video Gaming’s Most Creative Decade

In this excerpt from the new book "Electronic Dreams," we learn how the Speccy changed the video gaming landscape forever.

This is an excerpt from Tom Lean's new book for Bloomsbury Press, Electronic Dreams, exploring how 1980s Britain learned to love the home computer. Tom himself has made some small edits to the original text, to make the excerpt work as a stand-alone article.

In the early 1980s, home computing was booming around the world, as millions of people bought their very first machine from the likes of Commodore, Sinclair, Oric, Acorn, or Atari. Today it's easy to be amused at how primitive these computers seem, with their blocky graphics, tiny memories, beepy sound, and sometimes eccentric design features. Yet in their day they were an extraordinary creative medium; simple yet very powerful too, and open to experimentation by programmers who learned to push them far beyond what their designers expected, particularly when it came to creating games.

When we think of vintage computer games, we all too often think of the two-dimensional tennis of Pong, the repetitive attack waves of Space Invaders, or Pac-Man's entrapment in a haunted maze with no way out. Yet these are just the best known, and probably amongst the least impressive, of a much more diverse scene. Home computing ushered in a period of incredible gaming diversity and experimentation, probably the most creative period in video game history. It would need an entire book to adequately cover all the innovation and creativity of early 1980s games developers. The gaming scene was vast, with thousands of games of diverse genres, produced by hundreds of companies, on dozens of different platforms. However, an examination of just some of the most inventive titles and techniques of the early 1980s illustrates the great technical and creative achievements of game developers.

In Britain, many of the most innovative games of the early 1980s originated on the Sinclair-made ZX Spectrum, but were quickly ported to other platforms, too. Released in 1982, the Spectrum was a budget home computer with an emphasis on learning to program. With its "dead-flesh" rubber keys and small stylish black casing, the Spectrum appears more like an overgrown calculator than a computer to 21st century eyes, but appeared fantastically futuristic at the time. Priced at £175 [$250] for the 48k memory version (less than one eighty-seven-thousandth of the RAM of the computer I'm typing this on), it was hugely popular, meaning there were not only many people programming for it, but a large market to supply. By 1984 over 3,500 games had been released for the machine in some form or another. The quality and sophistication varied enormously, but it included a large number of critically acclaimed and innovative titles.

Curiously the Spectrum itself was not as optimized for games as some of its more expensive rivals. It needed an adaptor to plug a joystick into it, the sound capability was simply a beeper, and the odd way the machine displayed its visuals could create some strange-looking effects on screen from color clash. Other machines had more sophisticated sound and graphics, and provided built-in features to make writing games easier. A good example is the Commodore 64, which not only had an advanced sound chip but the ability to use sprites, graphical objects that made animations easier to create. "The trouble was, that guided everyone into making games that all looked incredibly similar," recalled Spectrum games programmer Jon Ritman. The Spectrum had no such hardware support, and yet its simplicity and origins as a machine to be explored made it a flexible medium to create games that did not have to obey the rules. "The Spectrum was just 'here's a bit of screen.' It's laid out in a funny way, which is a bit of a pain," explains Ritman. "But you just draw things. And you could do whatever you want. It might not be as fast, but you can do whatever you want, and I think that as a result you got more interesting ideas on it."

'The Lords of Midnight,' walkthrough

Many of the best-remembered titles of the 1980s are action games of various types, but it would be entirely misleading to suggest that this was all that was on offer. Text adventure games were a hugely popular genre at the time. In 1983 nearly 130 were released on the ZX Spectrum alone, the same year that saw the launch of a dedicated computer adventure game magazine: Micro Adventurer. At their best they were immersive works of interactive fiction, notably those actually based on books, such as The Hobbit and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the latter of which was co-created by its original author Douglas Adams. Very quickly, they evolved beyond simple text games, as programmers started illustrating them and adding other dimensions to the gameplay.

The most impressive example was probably The Lords of Midnight, written by a former teacher from Liverpool, Mike Singleton, in 1984. Drawing heavily on The Lord of the Rings, The Lords of Midnight was a quest to defeat the Witchking Doomdark, but offered far more than "YOU ARE IN A ROOM" style descriptions and typed "GO NORTH" commands. Rather, it was a mix of strategy war game and fantasy adventure, based around the remarkable "landscaping" graphical technique developed by Singleton. The first-person perspective this provided created an impression of traveling through a vast fantasy land of citadels, villages, mountains, and plains. It was a whole world for the player to explore, populated with enemies and potential allies, and like any good fantasy tale, the game even came with a map. The Lords of Midnight was far more open-ended than typical adventures: There were multiple characters to control, and it could be played as an adventure to destroy Doomdark's ice crown, or as a war game, by gathering forces to defeat him in battle. With 4,000 different locations and innovative gameplay, The Lords of Midnight was one of the earliest games that could be considered an epic. The cast of characters, atmospheric surroundings, enormous size and scope of gameplay made it a game that players could lose themselves in for many hours. Reviewers praised its world, landscapes, and coherent storyline, attributes more often associated with books or films than mere games at the time.

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Also visually impressive, but in a rather different way, was 1983's Ant Attack. Playing as either a boy or a girl character, a novelty in the male-dominated gaming scene of the time, the game's object was simple enough: Players had to enter the lonely ruins of the city of Antescher, dodge the giant ants (or, more aggressively, blow them up with grenades), and rescue their significant other. What was striking was the world the action played out in. Ant Attack was one of the earliest home computer games with three-dimensional graphics, using a technique known as isometric 3D, where the objects in the game were drawn to look like they were solid rather than flat. The game's creator, Sandy White, was a trained sculptor. With little more than shaded blocks, White created a sprawling three-dimensional city for the player to explore. The isometric 3D technique was so novel that the game's publisher, Quicksilva, attempted to take a patent out on it, but it became a widely emulated technique on the Spectrum.

Isometric 3D was taken to another level the following year when Ultimate Play the Game released Knight Lore, an action-adventure quest of collecting the ingredients needed to stop protagonist Sabreman turning into a "werewolf." Ultimate, a trading name of Ashby Computers & Graphics, were rare among British game companies in already having experience of creating arcade machine games before the home computer boom. They became well respected for a series of superbly realized and highly successful computer games such as the platform game Jetpac and action-adventure Atic Atac. The company cultivated an air of mystery; the lead developers, brothers Tim and Chris Stamper, rarely gave interviews, which paradoxically led to even greater press interest and a loyal fan base. Convinced it had a winner, Ultimate delayed the release of Knight Lore for some months to avoid upsetting the market for its other games. Whereas Ant Attack featured an expansive but essentially static city where nothing moved save for the player and the ants, Knight Lore used isometric 3D to create a miniature interactive world. Essentially a three-dimensional platform game, Knight Lore was a maze of claustrophobic dungeons that exploited the extra dimension to good effect, with objects that could be moved around, puzzles that needed to be solved in three axes, and hazards hiding behind things. The graphics were also precisely detailed; the animated paroxysms of Sabreman as he turned into a werewolf were a joy to behold. It was an approach widely considered revolutionary; Crash magazine's reviewer declared that it "resembles nothing I've played before."

'Knight Lore,' walkthrough

Other programmers were impressed, too. "You could have heard our jaws hit the floor, basically," recalls Jon Ritman of first seeing Knight Lore. "I looked at it and thought that's what I've always wanted to do, as I saw it, make a Disney cartoon that you could play." After Knight Lore, isometric 3D became a staple of Spectrum gaming. Indeed, so many games used the format that some magazine reviewers seem to have gotten rather bored of it after a while, but it was the basis for a number of inventive and polished games. Three-dimensional games were generally more technically demanding than two-dimensional ones, and few players appreciated all that was required to make isometric 3D work on a simple machine like the Spectrum.

"It required a number things," recalls Ritman, who employed the technique to good effect in 1986's Batman. The smooth three-dimensional animation as objects moved across the screen relied on emptying a space in the graphic and then drawing into the gap that was created. "You work out the area of the screen that's changed because something's moved," Ritman explains. "You work out the order of the room, from the back of it to the front, and then you draw all the things that come in that area that you need to update, in order, all the way to the front." To avoid the Spectrum's problem with color clash, the action in most isometric games was drawn in monochrome, albeit with different colors used for different rooms to display information around the screen. "And then there was the physics, being able to move things around," Ritman adds. It seems such a simple thing today, but having items moving around in a virtual world, not just scenes being drawn, but objects that the player could interact with, was curiously novel for the time.

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A good game was not just about the graphics technique employed, but also about using it to make a fun experience that was large enough to entertain players for a good few hours. Batman, for example, had a 150 rooms to explore of puzzles, enemies and items, requiring another set of techniques to fit the game into the confines of the Spectrum's memory. "It required some intense storage, so the maps and things were incredibly condensed," recalls Ritman. The following year he and artist Bernie Drummond surpassed even this, with Head Over Heels, another detailed, and rather surreal, isometric game. Head Over Heels also offered some impressive gameplay innovations too: enemies that homed in on the player's character as they moved, fiendish combinations of conveyor belts and enemies, and strange Prince Charles-Dalek hybrid creatures controlled by buttons within the game environment itself. Most notably, Head Over Heels had two characters with different abilities to control, the doglike Head and Heels, who could be combined into a single symbiotic organism, allowing a number of different ways to play.

When new, Manic Miner, the madcap 1983 platform game which set a benchmark for early home computer games, had been celebrated for squeezing 20 two-dimensional screens of action into the 48k ZX Spectrum. A few years later, Head Over Heels managed 300 three-dimensional rooms in the same computer, a striking demonstration of maturing programming techniques. Isometric games such as these were probably the most impressive displays of how far games programmers could push the simple capabilities of the Spectrum. They were essentially miniature interactive universes created within incredibly tight computing constraints. No matter how primitive the computers seem today, it's impossible not to be impressed by the things that skilled programmers could make them do.

Electronic Dreams is published on February 11, 2016. More information/purchase links at the Bloomsbury website. Follow Tom Lean on Twitter.