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40 years of colour: The history of the ZX Spectrum

40 years of colour: The history of the ZX Spectrum

To say the ZX Spectrum has aged well is an understatement and then some.

40 years after the initial launch on April 23rd, 1982, it still stands out as a strikingly stylish slab of technology. Its modest size, sleek metal casing and iconic grey rubber keys brought a retro-futuristic energy that has proved timeless and influential. At any point in the past four decades, a glance at a Speccy would feel contemporary and fresh.

Of course, it’s what’s inside the ZX Spectrum that changed computing, reinvigorated video games, and inspired countless careers. It’s often said that Clive Sinclair himself never predicted how popular he and his team’s creation would be as a gaming platform. Some even claim he wasn’t too keen on the idea. And yet it was the ZX Spectrum’s relationship with games that would change so much.

Manufactured in Dundee, Scotland, the ZX Spectrum followed Sinclair's ZX80 and ZX81 machines, but more so than its forebearers, it presented a more welcoming computer that was easier to understand and embrace. It certainly had professional use cases – and the technological muscle to match – but the genius in the Spectrum was that it really was made with the ordinary home user in mind. Most previous computers pitched at the mass market tended to still be the reserve of devoted hobbyists or those with one foot in an industry where computing skills were commonplace. Even opting for the pre-built version of the ZX80 instead of the cheaper kit variant required persistence and nouse to really get the most out of.

Previous home computers like the Atari 800 or Commodore VIC-20 certainly had a role to play in shaping the future of personal computing, but the ZX Spectrum brought a rather magic combination – ultimately serving as a defining games machine that help establish conventions of game development while founding the careers of many who work in the medium.

By the standards of the time the Speccy, as it is affectionately known, was powerful, user-friendly, supported all kinds of welcoming input devices such as joysticks, and had a then-mind bending array of colours; thus the name ‘Spectrum’. And at £125 for the 16kb RAM version and £175 for the 48kb RAM model, in its time it provided a lot of power to the penny. Those prices come out at around £470 and £650 in today’s money. That might have been out of reach of even the most devoted pocket money savers of the era, but thanks to tremendous sales that capably cleared 5 million units through the Speccy’s life, prices soon tumbled, putting it in range of a good number of families. And that was perhaps its greatest achievement. It put approachable, capable computing in the living rooms of ordinary families, and lots of them. Suddenly, computers sat alongside stereos and TVs, asserting their relevance as entertainment machines. That saw the Sinclair machine move in on console territory just as that realm of the game industry was starting to leave its Wild West phase and settle down.

Furthermore, the ZX Spectrum really was an all-rounder – no doubt many a sales clerk and eager aspiring gamer leaned hard on the machine’s practical, homework and home office abilities when it came to inspiring parents to invest in one. But it was games that made the ZX Spectrum an icon.

Sinclair had managed to bring together all the right elements for forming an ecosystem that would ultimately see a reported 23,000 games released for the machine. Professional game makers found it a very capable development platform. And they were motivated to keep crafting content by the sales potential the Spectrum’s growing audience presented. Equally important was the relative ease with which the Sinclair computer could be used to create games, spawning a boom in freeware, shareware and public domain creation and distribution, while turning some early Spectrum owners into professional game developers of their own right.

In fact, the Spectrum’s colour abilities that it wore so proudly on its sleeve weren’t quite perfect. The machine famously suffered from ‘colour clash’ (or to be particularly technical, ‘attribute clash’), which describes the way sprite and character assets would fail to interact correctly when passing over one another, inadvertently sharing colours in moments, when they were intended to remain distinct. In the end engineers and game designers conceived of some very smart workarounds – and yet arguably some form of colour clash exists in every title released for the computer.

Still, the ZX Spectrum became known for its ability to host fairly impressive ports and remakes of arcade titles – which were still clinging on to their status as the higher form of the gaming medium at the time. And while fans of the Speccy’s greatest rival might not want to admit it, it also had a knack for trumping the Commodore 64 when it came to game presentation.

Within the constraints of the ZX Spectrum’s abilities, titles such as Chase H.Q., Midnight Resistance, R-Type and Dun Darach looked utterly sublime on Sinclair’s creation. The latter also offers an example of the Spectrum’s ability with regard to characterful, energetic animations. Certainly, its visual abilities landed a long, long way short of realism. That was a plain reality of technology of this kind in 1982. But the ZX Spectrum’s animation strengths let developers shape games that were a good deal more believable and engrossing. Back in the mid 1980s, losing yourself to a Spectrum game could feel like nothing seen before.

And thanks to the sheer mass of users and makers, the Spectrum enjoyed a significantly varied game library of ported and original titles. That made it something of a golden time to be a player, as a great many releases arrived that were simply really good fun. Games like Ant Attack, Skool Daze, Manic Miner, Knight Lore, Gauntlet, Rainbow Islands, Atic Atac, Elite, Jet Pac, Deus Ex Machina, The Lords of Midnight, and Head Over Heels.

That very library inspired our own publication Sinclair ZX Spectrum: a visual compendium, which catalogues so many of the finest Speccy games.

All these years on, the Spectrum isn’t just a curious delight from gaming’s history. It shaped games’ place in the world, made a generation computer literate, and helped so many of us fall in love with a medium that is now one of the biggest in the world.

Any of us that enjoy games today owe the Speccy an appreciative nod for all that it set in progress. So here’s wishing a warm happy anniversary to the mighty ZX Spectrum!

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