Now that the Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega is on the market, and a cornucopia of gen-Xer adults are in a nostalgic zeitgeist inspired frenzy to buy it for ‘their kids’, my mind has turned to reminiscing about the halcyon days of the ZX Spectrum.
Unleashed on the general public in April 1982 by Sinclair Research Ltd, a company founded by the wacky professorial looking Sir Clive Sinclair, the ZX Spectrum quickly became an 8-bit diminutive magical black box that held pride of place in most UK households. It’s unassuming rubber keyed facade opened a portal to an improbable universe of wonder, delight and amazement.
Post the ZX81, with it’s monochromatic output and 1k of memory (unless you bought the space age hyper-brick of a RAM pack and upgraded to 16k), the ZX Spectrum boasted an impossibly vast memory threshold of 48k, which made it a veritable leviathan by comparison. And, it was in colour!
In the early 80’s it was not unheard of for the whole family to gather ritualistically around the Spectrum in their lounge, holding hands and chanting along with the squealing chaotic tape loading noise until a chunky pixilated character manifested itself on the couch.
Prior to 1982 home computing consisted of drawing crude buttons in black Biro on a shoe-box, and making beeping noises while waving a torch randomly at your television screen.
In fact, pre the home computing revolution, the average Scottish family would sit by flickering candlelight brusquely slamming dominoes onto a rough-hewn table while bagpipe music looped infinitely.
The ZX Spectrum gave everyone, including the sardonic domino wielding Scots, the impression that they could rain weapons of mass destruction on an innocent planet a la War Games. Thankfully, it did not provide the ability.
Clive Sinclair was knighted in 1983 for his contributions to the British Home Computer Industry, and for turning approximately 75% of the nation into socially acceptable nerds. His invention helped to temporarily place the rescuing of Miner Willy from his 20 level surreal subterranean Hell atop Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – just above the inherent basic human need for a SodaStream.
In hindsight, I’m sure it was a surprise to everyone that the Queen didn’t attempt to retract the knighthood when, in 1985, she witnessed Sir Clive whizzing around on a Sinclair C5 like an environmentally friendly but ergonomically challenged Davros.
But that was then, and this is the dystopian nightmarish now – with our convenient single push, quick fix, sideswipe you into a cloud-based trash eviscerator culture.
So instead of wearing black bin bags and fighting for supremacy over a radioactive barren wasteland, as was often portrayed as a futuristic foretelling of anything beyond the year 1989, we live in a future of polished glass dodecahedrons and virtual consumerism – a future where Starbucks can beam iced frappe soylent green mochaccinos directly into our prefrontal cortexes using a telepathic app on their highly intuitive Samsung smart mugs.
I think we take for granted how easy it is to obtain stuff and things in modern society. Stuff and things like games.
In the bygone days of the Spectrum ‘downloading’ a game comprised of the following:
Waking up on a Saturday morning with the slow dawning realisation that it’s pocket money day.
Feverishly leaping out of bed with the intent of pestering whichever parent you could find, until they grudgingly threw money in your general direction to shut you up.
This was followed by the shuddering sudden awareness that it’s 5 o clock in the morning and dark, also that the shops probably aren’t open yet; and that your parents were a tad grumpy because your youthful exuberance hijacked them from slumber, pleasant dreams of not having children, or early morning sex.
The nefarious egg shaped plot to buy a game had been laid in your brain the previous weekend. The very notion a byproduct of hideous consciousness devouring worms; sustained by advertising and hearsay, once hatched – free to wriggle around your skull until their appetite is appeased.
On occasion, the insidious worms may have been thwarted midweek by a group of disgruntled, gum chewing, sneering peers at school. Or, by an eavesdropped conversation in the playground where someone waxes rhapsodically about the latest Spectrum opus and it’s incredible graphics and mildly seditious nature – and it might even have swearing in it!
Your mind bouncing like a balloon in a wind tunnel with the infinite possibilities of new worlds to be unlocked, new dungeons to explore, new platforms to repeatedly plunge to your death from, you quickly brush your teeth and hastily throw on some clothes.
Breakfast consists of whatever you can hunter-gather, assuming that you were hunting cake or gathering biscuits.
You completely avoid the ubiquitous fruitcake as it contains the word ‘fruit’ and has the potential to be healthy. You hold a firm belief that cake is without a doubt a substantial and nutritious start to the day, after all, cake contains icing, additives and vitamins. Furthermore, you are convinced that a report on Tomorrows World told you that vitamins, additives and icing are the building blocks of life itself. You can’t argue with scientific fact, even if it’s completely fabricated.
Your fast having been well and truly broken, in all senses, you sprint wildly to catch the bus to the city, making sure to avoid all of the cars on the dangerously busy and garishly coloured Montague Road of course.
You sit panting, due to your exceptional confectionary based diet, grasping the money tightly in your sweaty fist and smile smugly, barely containing your sheer joy.
When you arrive at the city the smell of fresh jam doughnuts wafts delightfully on the wind.
Mmmm, jam doughnuts.
No! Focus! You can’t spend a penny. This money is accounted for, predetermined, earmarked – it serves a higher purpose.
You navigate the familiar streets speedily, fleeing all culinary urges, reminding yourself that have a quest; a goal that transcends the glory of delicious freshly made doughnuts.
And then you see it. On the corner. It’s doors inviting you, enticing you to enter – the building seems to grin like the Cheshire Cat on amphetamines.
You race inside, heart pounding with excitement, and up the stairs to the 3rd floor and your intended destination: the computer department.
Browsing through shelves upon shelves of cassettes, you pick up one rectangular plastic casing after another, turning them over and reading the background story, turning them back and letting your imagination run rampant on the cover artwork.
A lot of this ritual is redundant as you made your choice during the past week; still, there is always a place for the last minute impulse buy.
Eventually, the decision-making process reaches it’s inevitable zenith, and you settle on the game that you want. Holding it aloft like a talisman, or a beacon of eternal hope, you transport it to the counter to pay.
You present your prize ceremoniously to the guy behind the counter. He is invariably a spotty teen with greasy hair and surly manner. His black trousered and white shirted frame denoting his stature and authority in the shop. He plucks the cassette from your eager hand and casually looks at it. His facial expression gives away his opinion on your purchase.
A little sly smirk and you know that you’ve made a decent choice; a frown or sneer indicates that you’ve possibly just chucked your hard earned cash down the closest drain to be rended asunder by pocket money eating rats.
His judgement is important to you – well, he works in the game department, he is obviously some sort of computing genius and knows everything there is to know about computers. He may even be some type of grubby teenage cynical cyborg with a head full of tangled wires and microchips.
Transaction completed you rush to catch the bus back home. There is no time for browsing, meandering or dilly-dallying – this thing that you’ve bought is currently burning a sizeable hole in the bag – and if you don’t play it immediately, the entire world might well melt.
When you get home you take the cassette from its case and stick it into your tape recorder with wide-eyed reverence. You press play and then prepare to wait. The banshee wail of the spectrum tape loading noise begins.
You leave the room and make a cup of tea, return: the game is still loading.
You pick up a book and begin reading, every now and again your eyes dart to the screen – but it is still loading.
You leave your room, go to the toilet, wash your hands, go back to the kitchen and make yourself a sandwich, wash your cup, eat the sandwich, brush your teeth and then return to your room.
You go outside with Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield – who is ranting incessantly about gold, make your way to the Lonely Mountain, kill Smaug the dragon, lug the treasure halfway across Middle Earth avoiding murderous Orcs, return to your Hobbit hole, and guess what –
You turn the tape over and rewind to the beginning of the other side and try again.
On the 7th attempt, just before your parents insist that you should be in your bed as it’s now well after midnight, your game eventually loads.
Bathed in the brightly technicolour neon glow you sit and play.
The strange thing is that you’ve held this feeling of elation and exhilaration for the entirety of the day – nothing has deterred you, your determination and persistence have been nothing short of miraculous- and your patience and perseverance medal worthy. And even if the game isn’t so great, you convince yourself that it’s ok because of the sheer bloodymindedness you displayed by getting to this point.
And now – well you press a button and wait for a minute or so – and if you don’t like what you see, you can uninstall it immediately.
Where, I ask you, is the fun in that?