How the ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro influenced the computers we use today
These seeming imperfections only proved to bring the Spectrum community tighter together. It was a true DIY computer, one of the first of its kind, and bedroom programmers embraced the ideals with more and more outlandish concepts. In 'Ah Diddums' a teddy bear tried to escape it’s toy box so it can comfort its crying owner; Cookie had a chief trying to subdue his unruly ingredients, while Potty Pigeon cast the player as a bird trying to building its nest armed only with exploding poo to destroy any cars that get in its way.
This free-spirited nature even spread into publishing. Crash magazine began life as a mail-order games company in Ludlow, but after deciding to try its hand at writing it became the true herald of Sinclair’s baby. Games reviews were written by local teenagers, the covers were incredible paintings by artist Oliver Frey, and they wisely steered clear of the pages of code that magazines such as Sinclair User and Your Sinclair printed for readers to learn programming (or, more accurately, learn how to bang their heads against a wall until the corrections were published in the following issue).
Alongside the madness there were also some truly innovative games being written. Ultimate released hit after hit, including Jet Pac, Lunar Jetman, Atic Atak, Sabre Wulf, Knightlore, and Alien 8. Kevin Thoms invented a genre when he wrote the original Football Manager, while Mike Singleton’s The Lords of Midnight took the graphical limitations of the Spectrum and turned them into a positive advantage with beautiful wireframe illustrations marking his Lord of the Rings-style epic. Text adventures flourished, none better than those written by Level 9 Computing, and combat games were shown the future when Way of the Exploding Fist arrived.
The BBC Micro would also generate some classics, with one in particular standing out above all others - Elite. The space trading game had a sense of scale and freedom that gamers had never experienced before. Developed by Ian Bell and David Braben, it allowed the player to trade goods between space stations, buy improvements for their ship, and dabble with the moral choice of smuggling if they wanted. It was an instant classic that had some reviewers saying it was worth buying a BBC Micro just to play.
Other systems tried their hand at breaking into the home market. Amstrad’s CPC made a respectable stand, as did Acorn’s 'BBC-lite' effort: the Electron. Meanwhile, the Oric Atmos, Dragon 32, Jupiter Ace and others fell by the wayside. From overseas, the Commodore-64 was undoubtedly the Spectrum’s strongest rival, causing many a schoolyard dispute over which was the better machine, but the tiny Sinclair was always able to hold its own in bigger company
As the eighties progressed and new 16-bit machines started to appear on the horizon, the Spectrum went through a couple of minor revisions with the Spectrum+ and +2, but its time at the top was drawing to a close. When Sinclair sold the brand to Amstrad in 1986 it was merely a temporary reprieve and finally in 1990 the little machine, which did so much to bring computers in the homes of Britain, was gone. The BBC Micro also retired gracefully around the same time having amassed sales of more than 1.5 million units - a respectable showing, but one dwarfed by the Spectrum's 5 million sales.
Now, 30 years on, the legacy of those early British machines is still keenly felt. Professor Steve Furber CBE and Sophie Wilson were early pioneers working for Acorn when they built the BBC Micro. While researching its successor, the Archimedes, they developed what would become known as ARM processors. These chips now power most smartphones, tablets, and hand-held electronic devices. David Braben, co-author of Elite, is now working with the Raspberry Pi Foundation to support the £25 computer aimed at encouraging people to learn programming and to build cool things with the system. Software legends Ultimate became Rare and continued to make games for a variety of platforms, while Codemasters (another Spectrum alumni) has gone on to develop titles such as Colin McRae Rally, and Lord of the Rings Online.
While the games industry has become more corporate, and development costs have risen to dizzying levels, something of the Spectrum’s ‘you can do it’ spirit is also to be found in the strong independent software development that is growing once more. Outlets such as the Xbox Live Arcade and the mobile platforms of iOS and Android are giving bedroom coders the chance to make an impact, while freeing them from the restraints of corporate identity and over-cautious legal advisors looking to protect their intellectual property. Hopefully this will lead to consumers being given a choice that offers gameplay and invention over glitz and high production values - something Spectrum programmers learned a long time ago.
Indeed, if you truly want to visit the glory days then a range of emulators are available for the PC and Mac, while even iOS has apps that include classic Spectrum games like Skool Daze, Trashman, Jet Set Willy, and Jetpac. Not bad for a machine that had dodgy graphics, ropey sounds, but a ton of personality. In many ways the ZX Spectrum feels a little like that other old classic...Bagpuss. It was a bit ragged, and loose at the seams....but we loved it.