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2007-04-30: The Sinclair ZX Spectrum turned 25 the other week

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Categories: All Personal Tech

[Jet Set Willy screenshot] As with Transformers, being born in 1981 I was a bit late to the Speccy — starting with the first model produced under the auspices of Amstrad rather than Sir Clive, the +2. It was a good point to get on-board. The +2 had 128K but didn't suffer from the 48K compatibility problems of the later +2A, or being tied to proprietary 3" discs like the +3 ...though having a swanky built-in tape player was a bit double-edged if the thing broke.

In scenes duplicated up and down the country, the computer was bought for educational reasons and saw a lot more use as a games machine. Jet Set Willy 2, Chaos, Thundercats, Dizzy... not many people write time sinks like those any more, which even though they're (still) fiendishly addictive is possibly for the best: most games didn't have "save points" and it wasn't worth starting a long session on a school night, unless there was a way to skip levels by entering passwords. It was a fairly social activity though — different people had different games, and there were lots of two-player titles out.

[Your Sinclair: it's crap! in a funky skillo sort of way] Despite the opportunities for copying tapes, I don't remember much of that — cover tapes and pocket money ranges were quite satisfying. I do remember buying up lots of cheap games when the platform was on the wane, and stacks of early Your Sinclair issues not long after the magazine's demise in 1993. YS was one of the best things about the Speccy era, home to irreverent and barkingly eccentric journalism at a time computer magazines were staid things, and its style has since been much-imitated. I remember being sad to see YS go when it ended at issue 93, quite ironically as I'd been about to drop it, the page count falling month-by-month.

Whatever the distractions of games, the machine was genuinely educational. As well as a raft of software such as the FunSchool series and ports of BBC titles like Granny's Garden, you could program the thing. Sinclair BASIC wasn't the most versatile of languages, lacking procedures, but with a little planning GOTO loops weren't the end of the world. Games written before machine code loaders took hold could even be stopped, modified and saved to tape... I never got as far as assembler or understanding things at a circuit board level, but it was enough to gain an affection for the friendly Borg on my desk that did what it was told to, no more, no less.

All-in-all, it was a spectacularly welcome move by my parents, who spent a lot of time feigning interest in stuff that must've been exceedingly dull, and has seen them not lacking for technical support in subsequent years, as well as probably distracting me from the attention a new kid sister needed back then. I went on to GUI programming with the Acorn Archimedes, then sideways to server-side web applications.

Apparently you can still buy Speccy clones in Russia, but these days most people have moved over to emulation, facilitated by the generosity of Amstrad in releasing the machine ROMs / documentation plus most software authors not being fussed about the distribution of games that are still technically under copyright. World of Spectrum is a good place to start for that, and whilst they have lots of magazine scans too, fan site Your Sinclair: the Rock 'n' Roll Years has a lot of easy to read / search content as text.

If you feel like a soundtrack to this, I recommend Hey Hey 16K and the accompanying Flash at B3ta:

Are you welling up yet? Must just be me then...


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