Develop panel gets back to BASICs

Jury: Ode to the Spectrum

This week’s Jury Service saw developers jump to the opportunity to praise the home computer that kick-started their careers; the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

What’s clear in the responses copied out below is that the Spectrum’s legacy is not its catalogue of classics, but instead the wonderful opportunities it offered a founding generation of game designers.


Develop Jury Service#12

What are your memories of the Sinclair platforms, and what will their legacy be?

Alex McLean, Birmingham Studio Head, Codemasters
I remember spending £250 (!) on a 16K DKTronics ram pack for my ZX81. Two hundred and fifty of your English pounds. Nearly thirty years ago. For 16k.

It kept falling out the back of the machine, usually just prior to the conclusion of a marathon typing session of entering a long series of data statements from a magazine.

Their legacy, games aside, is their contribution to determining the future career paths for many people now working in the games industry all over the World, myself includes.

And all this even though the Commodore platforms were “better”. But that’s another article.

Alex Ionescu, Flash game designer
Our High School in Romania had Sinclair ZX Spectrum machines for us to play with, back in the ’80s

Storing the programs to a cassette recorder… I graduated in 1988 from “Nicolae Balcescu” Math & Physics High-School, now known as St. Sava National College.

That was the first computer I programmed on, in BASIC… I am an Advertising Game Developer now, but the classmate that spent the most time with it, has a PhD in Computer Science from University of California, Irvine , and develops software for chip design.

Charles Chapman, Founder, Exient
My Dad bought my brother and I a Spectrum 48k in the early ‘80s. I was a little dubious, but soon became the classic nerd of the time, typing in programs from magazines, then playing around with them and changing them to do something different.

 It’s unbelievable to think that people did that back then – you’d often spend all day typing something in, and then it wouldn’t work properly because you’d entered something incorrectly on one line.

I started typing in the BASIC programs, as you could learn from them as you typed them in, but there were also listings of pure HEX you could type in – reams upon reams of hexadecimal numbers with absolutely no discernable meaning to them whatsoever. It was mind-numbing to be honest, but people did it all the time – you’d pay a couple of quid for a magazine, spend two days typing a program in and you had a new game!

I had my first game published on the Spectrum – I was 14, it was a 7 a side football management game written entirely in BASIC, and I was paid £1000 for it. For a 14 year old lad that meant I was loaded! I went on to write 2 more Spectrum games. The first was written on the bog standard rubber-keyed 48k model, but I went on to own a Spectrum 128k, and then a Plus 2.

The whole tape-based storage method was another world compared to what we have now. For me being a schoolboy programmer I would have to save my work to tape, but this was pretty laborious so you’d often only save every few hours or so. There was no autosave and no easy CTRL-S to instantly save your work! I remember once when I was working on a game I was writing and was testing by playing against my brother – he lost and in a temper tantrum, he pressed the reset button. I hadn’t saved what I was doing for a few hours and that was it – all gone. Cue a minor scrap between a couple of 14 year old boys…

After that I decided I needed to move on from the cassette-based storage, so I bought a Sinclair Microdrive – this was still a tape based system, but was super quick (in comparison to cassettes), but it wasn’t perfect and would often randomly fail. Towards the end of its life I had a couple of third-party disc based systems too, using 3.5" floppies – they were much better, but by then I was moving away from the Spectrum and onto the next-generation of Atari ST and Commodore Amiga.

The level I was programming at back then I never really got stuck into anything beyond BASIC, but looking back there were some pretty cool things being done with the hardware. The days of the Spectrum were also the days where programmers were getting a bit of celebrity status – Kevin Toms had his picture on the front of Football Manager, Matthew Smith was the Jet Set Willy legend, and Jon Ritman and Bernie Drummond were industry celebs for Match Day, Head Over Heels, the isometric Batman etc, the "Oliver Twins" (now of Blitz) for the Dizzy games, and plenty of others.

It may not have been the most powerful home computer of its era or had the best graphics but for me, the Spectrum was where videogames begun, both from a playing and a programming point of view and as such, lead to the career I have now.

Lol Scragg, CEO, Cohort Studios
My own personal memories of the Spectrum are filled with playing the classic titles that defined the machine – Jet Pac, Manic Miner, Skooldaze and so on, though like most kids in that time, I did try my hand at BASIC and managed to string a program or two together (not to mention saving them on my awesome Microdrive).

By far the most important thing about the Spectrum, and to a similar extent the other 8-bit machines, was having languages like BASIC as the default operating system. This meant kids would always muck about, explore and experiment with the machine. Of course, 90% of them ended up getting no further than doing the classic ‘print-goto’ thing to either big themselves up or abuse their mates in Dixons, but the other 10% of kids who took things further is, I think, incredibly significant.

It’s always pleasing to hear how many developers (and even studio CEOs) who were kids in that era got started in game programming or asset creation via BASIC, early art packages and type-in listings from magazines. That’s the true legacy of that era and the Spectrum, I think.

Tne interesting tidbit of Spectrum history, that’s relevant to us at Cohort, is that Dundee was the location for the Timex plant where most of the Spectrums were manufactured. We reckon you can attribute the population of developers in our area to the number of Spectrums that ‘wandered’ out of that one factory!

Simon Jones, Director, Peppermint PR
My first foray into ‘television gaming’ was one Christmas when my parents decided that the family should have a Binatone television game, frustratingly it belonged to the whole family and I had to share.

Although I managed to snaffle my next games powerhouse system (the ZX81) as my own property, sadly the family precedent had already been set and when the Spectrum triumphantly arrived in our house on Christmas morning, my only disappointment was to see that the ownership was not mine, rather younger sister’s.

I’ve never before shared the fact that my Spectrum ‘ownership’ days were shameless living lie but like most good fraudsters, I made sure it never held me back. My parents had been advised in the shop to buy two games, one was some kind of vanilla version of Frogger, but the other was Psion’s excellent version of Galaxians. Surprisingly those games kept me well engaged until my January birthday and the arrival of Flight Simulator again on the Psion label.

Most of my games were procured from Boots in Stockport where a large proportion were returned within a few days for a full refund on the acceptable basis that “it was rubbish”. School was a hot bed of piracy in those days and with anyone with a tape-to-tape copier was the usual distributor of the latest releases.

Memorably my local radio station, Piccadilly, took to gaming and famously broadcast a game over the air in several instalments. I can’t remember much about this unique way of distributing ‘code’ other than it worked seamlessly. I still wonder what commuting Mancunians made of spectrum loading sounds following the J.Geils Band down the A34!

I had lot of technical problems with my 48k. Many of us suffered from a dodgy power supply and mine was sellotaped down in a vain attempt to cease unscheduled resets in the middle of Jetpac. I also had the old keyboard peeling problem, largely down to abuse at the hands of Daley Thompson and by the time my Spectrum finally ‘bought the farm’ it was about 40% sticky tape.

As far as games go, I played almost everything that hit the Spectrum at the time but I remember being most impressed when developers started to play around with the loading procedure. Edge’s Fairlight was amazing with no loading borders and a counting clock.

My favourite developer at the time, well that’s easy. Jon Ritman was singly responsible for my complete disregard for school homework but he did teach me the meaning of the word isometric. I had the great pleasure of working with him in the mid ‘90s and am delighted to be able to dispel the theory that you should never meet your heroes, as he was a lovely man.

I did learn to ‘code’ in BASIC, initially by inaccurately copying scripts from Sinclair User and having to fix them. Next stage was plotting UDGs to throw some graphics into my creations but other than writing a scoring display application for my youth club’s charity ping pong tournament, it remained unpublished.

My brush with gaming did sow the seeds for my, now, 20 year career in video game marketing. Drawing on an analogy from the sausage making industry, i quickly learned that my skillset was best suited to selling sizzle than cooking up pig!

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