I am a ‘90s child. A man who shares a birth year and month with Sonic the Hedgehog, and a man whose greatest mentor was Splinter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Video games weren’t what they are now. The 16-bit era was still a long way from being the big budget strutting dairy cow that it’s become. Despite how primitive gaming might have seemed at the time, with its cartridges and weird CD add-on’s (Sorry Sega), video games had actually come along drastically from the options that our parents had before us.
Jumping into our clapped out Škoda time machine to travel to 1982, we can observe that video games were in fact at a stage of infancy, ready to start learning what it could really become. Another observation would be that similar to today, you could go down two different roads of playing games at home, as opposed to going down to the arcade where you’d meet your future wife during a heated session of Pac-Man. You could venture into the land of ‘home consoles’, an example of which being the ATARI Video Computer System (2600), which would have cost you around $199 ($777 equivalent today’s economy). A cheaper alternative to this, however, is what we will be discussing today, in the form of the home computer – the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
The ‘Specky’, as your father will call it with a tear in his eye, was one of the first consumer grade computers alongside the likes of Commodore and Amiga, and it was an affordable way to get a good dose of pixelated entertainment. The Spectrum was essentially a black slab with some keys on it and a happy rainbow logo to keep you from crying at the fact you spent the rent money on it. It was capable of running video game programs stored on everyone’s favourite obsolete media format: the cassette tape. I had only heard legends of this beast of technologies past, and until I was given one whilst purchasing an Atari Lynx from an old man on Gumtree, I had no idea what I was about to experience.
Crammed into a dusty old banana box avec two dozen old cassettes, I didn’t even think twice to take the man up on his offer, of which he was more than happy to punt due to his wife forcing him to remove any childhood wonder he had left in his ageing mind. I rushed home in my old Astra, that was low on fuel that should have been purchased with the £20 I just blew, and began to breathe in dust that probably settled within this box 20 years ago.
I’m no stranger to technology, but trying to figure out how to set this up was like asking Abraham Lincoln to explain what the Kardashian’s are. There was an abundance of wires and accessories I had no idea what to do with; a joystick controller which didn’t seem to be compatible at the time; and an old cassette player. The Macgyver in me knew that it all had to fit together somehow, so I separated each item, hoping I’d see the light. Eventually I figured out that the cassette player sends the data to our little Spectrum using electrical noise through an auxiliary cable, which doesn’t really explain the best of George Michael sitting in the tape deck. Eventually, I got to the stage of plugging in the monolithic power supply and aerial cable into the TV, and gazed at my monitor as absolutely nothing happened. Was the Specky away to computer heaven? No, I just forgot that these enigmas need to be tuned to a TV station, so once I did a quick scan for channels, we were finally ready to experience some raw 1980’s gaming.
Of course you realise my Crystal Maze set of challenges was not over yet. I was greeted with a grey screen, with some haunting text: ‘1982 Sinclair Research LTD’. At first I just hit ‘Enter’ on the keyboard. Nothing happened. Then I tried pressing play on the cassette player; again nothing happened. Eventually, after feeling like I was out of my league, I caved in and reached for my phone in order to educate myself on how to actually get this thing to be anything other than a depressing TV mood light. The Google Gods bestowed their wisdom upon me, proclaiming that to run a program I would have to press ‘J’ followed by ‘Shift’ and ‘P’ then ‘P’ and ‘Enter’… and to think that the Megadrive involved blowing the cartridge and flicking a switch.
Then it happened. The machine began to make a noise I can only describe as the sound of the brave little toaster being struck with a taser, and displayed a distorted array of coloured lines on my screen: my game was finally loading. The thing is, the gaming doesn’t just simply load, it will continue to shriek and flash for five minutes as it slowly loaded a very pixelated image. I stuck with the only game I recognised from the box which was R-Type, a side scrolling shooter that was on the likes of the Master System and the Super Nintendo. I have to say, after all the stone age style set up and unorthodox loading times I expected the game to be a million miles away from what I was used to during my childhood. However, it was basically just a simplified and slower version of the game I was used to with a smaller colour palette.
Once the game started I realised that I had forgot to connect the joystick, which I figured out plugs into a black box, that in turn, connects to a slot at the back of the Spectrum. As I connected the black box, however, I realised I had made a fatal error: the Spectrum had mystically reset itself back to its grey intro screen. This was my punishment for forgetting that I was dealing with powers from beyond my time, all that time spent on my quest to experience the 80’s was hindered by forgetting to check my privilege. At this point I cracked open a beer, switched off the Spectrum and started watching Escape from New York while reflecting on my errors and promising to attempt to harness the power of the 8-bit home computer again once ready.
I learned a lot from that fateful night: past technologies have to be respected, our own technology has to be appreciated – and no matter how inconvenient it may seem, people before us thought this was the definition of innovation. One day, when I’m a bitter old man, children are going to look at the Sega Megadrive and wonder how you download a game onto it, and how their virtual reality headset connects to it and in this moment. I’ll remember my night with the Spectrum and hope they get to discover old technology the way I did.