A personal history of computers part two – the Sinclair years

sinclair In the last post I examined the first computer I ever owned, the Commodore Vic-20 and discussed some of the earliest games available on a proper home computer, as opposed to a console. Now I’d like to move on to the true love of my early computing life, a cultural memory I share with many others of the same age as myself in the UK, as this machine was a runaway success, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

As is well known, Sinclair (run by the eccentric Sir Clive Sinclair, who’s rise to prominence in the UK microcomputer industry is well documented in the brilliant recent tv dramatisation, Micro Men) started with calculators and then designing kit computers for the hobbyist market.

The spectrum’s predecessors 

The spectrums ancestor, the ZX80 came in the form of components that owners would then build themselves. This seems unusual when you think about the fact that many people now own computers, even if its “just” a staggeringly powerful smartphone nestling in the pocket – and very few of those people would consider building a machine themselves. The entire market has changed since then… it was once the province of geeks happy to solder a circuit board – in fact it’s safe to say that this was probably one of the most exciting parts of the entire process.

The ZX81, it’s immediate predecessor, did not come in kit form. However, it was very basic, even when compared to the Commodore Vic. It had a whopping 1k of memory (sarcasm set to stun, here, obviously), no moving parts, a flat membrane for a computer keyboard (and oh gosh, haven’t we come full circle with smartphone touchscreen keyboards – but at least they have haptic feedback) and no sound whatsoever. It was capable to upgrade the ZX81’s memory via an expansion slot at the back, but this was highly precarious, with any movement of the memory pack crashing the machine horribly. It got so hot too – in common with the spectrum my memories of both machines are inextricably linked with an electronic burning smell… it’s true what they say about smell being linked closely to memory and nostalgia.

ZX81

Despite the burning smell, the ZX81 wasn’t to be sniffed at, however. It won many design awards – even now, its slick, dark case looks futuristic in a Dark Star / Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy kind of way. Interestingly, at that time personal computer aethestic design hadn’t coalesced into the offensively inoffensive beige hell that PCs did later. This is another thing that has come full circle with modern computing, where innovative form factors, colours and input devices are now de riguer once again –  something that can be attributed in no small part to Jonathon Ive’s revolutionary and mould-breaking designs for iMacs back in 1997 when Jobs took over Apple once again. Great site here about some of the more interesting Mac designs including the lozenge-like iMac G3 and the cube.

Additionally, the ZX81 made history with what must have been the first ever 3D shooter (or First Person Shooter), with 3D Monster Maze. This was an isometric 3D game, the first of its kind, which interestingly eschewed the undocumented hi-res mode of the ZX81 for “pseudo graphics” using the basic character set of the machine.

 

 

As an aside, you had to be a real rocket scientist to program for these machines, as they made no concessions to ease of use for development at all. To squeeze graphics and high performance from such a limited set of resources meant coming up with revolutionary methods that circumvented the machines shortcomings in very clever ways. More on this later.

So… the ZX81, even though it felt like a step backwards in some ways from the machines Commodore and others were putting out actually set the stage for cheap, affordable computing for the masses… something that was more than satisfied by the ZX Spectrum.

The ZX Spectrum 48k

Sinclair launched the Spectrum in 1982, I was 11 years old at the time and I bugged my parents constantly for one. I had better luck with this than my request for a real live monkey for Christmas a few years previously, put it that way.

At that time there was a few choices, not least the Commodore 64, the Vics big brother, not to mention the Welsh microcomputer, the Dragon 32, the Oric and more. In addition, I used Radio Shack and TRS80 machines in school – later to be replaced by BBC micros and Acorn Electrons – even if there wasn’t yet such a thing as dedicated computer studies at O level. However, this time it was my choice. And then, as now (with tablets or mobile phones, certainly) it was most definitely NOT about the hardware specs. It was ALL about what the machine can actually do, what its prime purpose of existence is… which in the case of the spectrum…… was games.

This was not what Sinclair intended. He actually had very high aspirations for technology and society, as Keith Gifford notes on his great game blog:

“[It’s] pretty neat just to see how tuned-in and far-out he was, nearly three decades ago. He foresaw how massive storage and the power of networking will restore the power of the individual in society — or, to put it another way, he foresaw how blue-collar manufacturing wasn’t going to be the main economic sector of the West for long.”

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/2011/03/column_game_mag_weaseling_futu_1.php

Sinclair rushed the Spectrum out quite quickly and cheaply to compete with the BBC Micro, a machine produced by his rivals at Acorn computers (who had once worked for Sinclair) to support the BBCs educational programming. The BBC was a solid but utterly dull proposition that just screamed “proper computing” rather than fun, in no small part due to its school association, and kids like me avoided it like the plague. They were for rich kids, we felt, who must have sat alone with their expensive BBC micro, bereft of games, and friends too, come to that.

The Spectrum didn’t attempt to compete on specs, but it did with money. It cost £175 compared to the BBC retailing at £399 – in 1982 that was a massive price difference. Given that at in the eighties, Wales was one of the poorest countries in the whole of Europe, these things mattered to parents, believe me. But ultimately it was the games that swung things. So let’s take a look at the early titles which made this machine so alluring to my childhood self.

ZX Spectrum games

There were a number of developers early on that moulded the landscape of gaming on the Spectrum, some of which going on to become huge studios that are still turning out brilliant games today. Many of the developers were auters in the same way as Jeff Minter, turning out extraordinarly eccentric games with some highly original ideas that captured the imagination of children and teenagers.

Bug Byte and Miner Willy

Matthew Smith of Bug Byte was one such developer. Smith started out programming on the TRS80, and produced one of the first mega popular ZX Spectrum games, Manic Miner, that propelled him to fame. Manic Miner was a platform game, where you played Miner Willy, a man dedicated to mining underground caverns of their treasure. The intro screen gives an immediate taste of the irrevent tone, with a piano being played by invisible hands in a risibly dischordant way, further excabated by the Spectrums primitive sound chip – it was the first game to feature in-game music but often people would end up disabling it pretty quickly. However, what really distinguished the game was the bizarre enemies (strange clockwork creatures, toliets with flapping lids, penguins and more…. who in traditional platforming style didn’t seem particular concerned with you, but followed their endless patterns, causing instant death when collision occurred).

The most notable “enemy” was Eugene in the Eugene’s Lair level – actually based on a colleague of Smith’s at Bug Byte who told him that Manic Miner couldn’t be done.

The following clip should give you a flavour of the games anarchic style:

 

 

Once Miner Willy had completed the final level, he emerged from the mine rich beyond his wildest dreams which is where Jet Set Willy takes up the story. Jet Set Willy was Smith’s crowning acheivement, a platformer so huge, sprawling and yes, visionary that very few people completed it (in fact early versions of the game had a bug making it actually IMPOSSIBLE to complete, hilariously – it was so large it didn’t matter anyway).

Actually, looking at this room map, it doesn’t seem so large – a time-based illusion, similar to how your mums kitchen counter seemed impossibly high… clearly my perceptions of what makes up a large gaming world have been changed by playing things like Grand Theft Auto or Oblivion.

But… thats how it felt. Looking back at games like Jet Set Willy, I can see how my gaming tastes for open-world, sandbox titles were shaped in the crucible of my youth. Unlike Manic Miner you weren’t required to complete the game level by level. You could just wander round not even bothering to collect the cups, which is just as well, as even then I wasn’t great at the kind of precision gaming that it required. The concept of a complete world to explore, with far off and strange places and thematic completeness was profound to this child.

 

 

Interestingly, before we move on, Jet Set Willy was one of the first games ever to have copy protection. Harbringers of DRM to come?

A great interview with Matthew Smith can be found here.

Ultimate Play The Game

Another early game I had for the Spectrum was Lunar Jetpac, a first effort in the burgeoning British microcomputer industry by two ex-arcade developers going by the name of Ulitmate Play The Game – better known as the modern studio, Rare – who would go on to produce contemporary gaming classics such as Golden Eye on the Nintendo 64. Ultimate were simply streets ahead of any other developers on the Spectrum. Their graphics and animation were slicker and as we’ll go on to see, they produced some ground-breaking technology on the humble Z80 platform which would blow away pretty much anything else ever produced for the platform.

Lunar Jetpac was their first game, and it gave a taste of what was to come from the studio. As the protagonist stuck on a planet populated by a variety of strange flying creatures, you had to build your rocket from various components – once built, you could escape. But in the meantime you had to defend yourself. Like many of the early games, it was staggeringly simple, but maddeningly addictive.

 

 

But there was better to come. The first point Ultimate showed signs of moving away from charming but simple games such as Jetpac, Pssst and Trans Am was with Sabre Wulf. This game featured a richly textured and stunningly beautiful maze set in a forest where you played an intrepid explorer, Sabreman, a character that was to reappear frequently through Ultimate’s titles. This game was tough – I don’t think I ever finished it.

The piece de resistance though – and this where Ultimate upped the ante with the Spectrum – was Knight Lore. Knight Lore featured an isometric 3D view (although essentially remaining a platformer at heart) which featured the most incredibly detailed graphics, to the point where it would easily stand up against modern games, especially on mobile platforms. This 3D viewpoint is now commonplace with modern videogames, particularly stategy titles, but also featured in titles like GTA China Wars. So, innovations in Knight Lore were truly revolutionary and ahead of their time. All game studios owe Ultimate a debt, I feel.

 

 

As Oscar Garcia Panella says on his brilliant computer game design blog:

“Compared to “Sabre Wulf” and “Underwurlde”, “Knight Lore” used a different and “brilliant” technology: a new projection implementation for the “virtual” camera. The first pair of titles used what is known as an orthographical projection. It can be implemented as a lateral view of the whole scene (sometimes referred as “two and a half dimensions”). But in “Knight Lore” they innovated by introducing a 3D projection effect. To be precise, an axonometric isometric representation quite unexpected in those times if we take into account that the “Speccy”’s RAM capacity orbited around 48 Kbytes.  

It was…special…because it looked…tri-dimensional! An incredible effect (we shouldn’t forget that everything was built on the basis of a set of sprites) that captivated me to the point of becoming a 3D Computer Graphics professor and researcher. No doubt on that. I never thought that adding “the Z coordinate” to our virtual worlds would provoke such a different appeal on the screen.”

http://www.etc.cmu.edu/etcpress/content/knight-lore-and-third-dimension-oscar-garcia-panella

Oscar hits the nail on the head about the virtual worlds thing. All of the time developers were becoming much more sophisticated in the construction and presentation of these – Knight Lore had soul. It was totally immersive. I must have spent many, many hours playing this game and not even to win, but just to marvel at the world itself. This, for me, is the very essence, the core, of what gaming is about.

They made some compromises in order to achieve this however. Knight Lore was in two colours only, and used shading and texture cleverly so this didn’t really seem to be too much of a problem. The ZX Spectrum could only display two colours per character anyway, but most games tried to use lots of colours and then were subject to an issue known as colour clash. Knight Lore deftly avoided this by a stategic design compromise. This is how games become thematically focussed – by ditching anything that doesn’t support the central theme, or vision, of the game.

Here’s another great map of the entire game.

As an aside, Fairlight, by Bo Jangeborg of The Edge studios was later to use similar techniques in an even more sophisticated way. Jangeborg actually designed a graphics engine (GRAX) – developing toolkits in this way showed that games programmers were maturing in their approach to design games, and the whole enterprise was becoming to look more like modern development all the time. Jangeborg also pioneered pseudo 2 channel sound from the Spectrums resolutely one channel sound chip, by time slicing – an early use of multithreading which pushed the hardware to the limit.

 

 

Mel Croucher and the collision of art, literature & gaming

At the same time, other developers were innovating in entirely different ways, some pulling in social / real-world elements into their games with serious themes that referenced literature and film and combining the humble Spectrum’s abilities with early and inventive use of multi-media.

Mel Croucher ran Automata, a games house that developed a series of highly individual games, at first based around a strange character called Pi Man who resurfaced in several adventures, with Mel also releasing a cartoon strip that was published in Popular Computer Weekly. Croucher’s games had some very serious points to make. For a start they believed that middle men and distributors were going to ruin the creativitiy of the micro computer industry, a belief that was frankly born out by reality – no-one can really argue that the games industry now is as revolutionary and as risk taking as it was then – when companies like EA see fit to rush out crap like Fifa year after year practically unchanged. In addition Croucher thought that violence in computer games was wrong – all of the Automata games were non violent, as he says on his site in his Rants & Raves section:

“The society in which we find ourselves confuses aggression with strength, it promotes attack as defence, it equates killing with winning.  The computer games industry markets aggression because it is run by the same breed of morons who market the real thing.  I do not subscribe to the theory that the two schoolboys who killed twelve people, wounded 24 others and then committed suicide at Columbine High School did so because a computer game called Doom turned them into monsters.  They did so because they were part of a society that glorifies guns.  I do subscribe to the theory that the 85,000 players who have downloaded Super Columbine Massacre RPG off the web in order to re-enact the Columbine school killings are in serious need of therapy.  The fact that the software was written by a guy who was born in 1982 saddens me greatly, as that was the year when I began this long campaign against computerised violence.  There is only one thing worse than those who promote the obscenity of violence in the name of the free market, and that is those who promote the obscenity of violence in the name of their god.  If I wasn’t such an amiable pacifist I’d go round to their house and punch their corporate faces in. “

http://www.melcroucher.com/melspages/rantsandraves/

To say the least, this is a highly unusual viewpoint from someone working in the video games industry. I’m not surely I agree that violence in games causes violence in real life and the evidence doesn’t really bear that out, either, but he’s a principled man and I respect that.

The Pi games were adventures, that bled into real life. PiMania was based round a real world competition to find a golden sundial worth £6000, using clues hidden within the game.

But its with Deus Ex Machina that Croucher really excelled.

It came with an audio cassette that was meant to played simultaneously as you played the game. The audio soundtrack was a complex story featuring some big name British actors and performers, such as Ian Dury, Jon Pertwee, Donna Bailey and Frankie Howard. Although futuristic in the extreme, it referenced 1984, Brave New World and Shakespere’s Seven Ages of Man.

It’s also one of the few Spectrum games that allowed you guide sperm into an human egg in one of the many sub games. It didn’t always work and got mixed reviews, but you have to admire the sheer ambition in this.

 

 

Here’s an great interview with Mel Croucher.

Mike Singleton and Lords of Midnight

The last developer and game I want to focus on in this article is another that is very close to my heart. Mike Singleton was a teacher who gave up his day job in 1982 to concentrate full time on video game development. An old school Dungeons and Dragons head who was also into war figure gaming, he created Lords of Midnight which was a highly unusual game that straddled the boundaries of adventure games, strategy (which indidentally did not exist as a genre at that time – another innovation on this humble British platform) and open-world gaming. It had thousands of locations, hundreds of playable characters and an evocative ice-cold graphical style that was totally immersive. It was turn-based so as you rallied your troops against Doomdark and made your decisions, eventually the enemy would make theirs.

 

 

It sticks in my mind because of the atmosphere… considering the game had no sound (the vastness of the world having consumed all of the available memory and then some) this is incredible. I spent all day playing it when Live Aid was going on at Wembley. I even remember repeatedly playing 2 albums as I progressed further and further into the game… Phil Collins Face Value and Paul Young’s “No Parlez”. Hey, that’s the eighties for you, although I still rate Phil Collins album, not so fussed about Paul Young anymore.

I find Singleton’s views on programming the Midnight games fascinating, and for me it demonstrates Singleton’s increasing maturity as a programmer in a time where efficiencies in game construction were not as commonplace as they are now, and also how the industry was changing in general.

Take, for example, this snippet about how he changed techniques between the first Midnight game and the second, from this great Crash interview:

“An awful lot of new stuff went into Doomdark, which is really why it took a bit longer to do than I’d anticipated. To fit the new stuff in I had to restructure the way the game was moderated internally quite considerably. I’d got about 3 bytes spare on Midnight, I know I’d already streamlined it about three or four times to get it to fit in, so I had to take a slightly different approach to Doomdark’s Revenge although certain things remained the same, such as the routines for putting the graphics up on the screen were unchanged. The graphics were different of course but that’s just a question of redrawing them. But as I was doing Lords of Midnight I realised there were ways I could have done it more efficiently if I’d realised it at the beginning, but by then it was too late to go back.

I suppose it’s only a technical point – is that different types of characters and objects had been stored in different formats of table in Lords of Midnight, so I’d got tables for armies, tables for characters, I’d got tables for objects, and being in machine code each one needed its own little routine for access. But what I did in Doomdark’s Revenge was make all the tables work on the same sort of format so they could all be accessed by the same routine even though they were different tables, which compressed it all considerably. Other things came out of that as well. With each character having his own particular starting location, instead of having to save two x and y co-ordinates I only had to save the one and you get the character’s name and his starting location, so that saves a bit more. I have to do a little more text compression yet again.'”

Here Mike is almost talking about object orientation, or at the very least, componentisation of the code – so routines could be re-used instead of being scattered throughout the source – this was a huge consideration when you only had 48k to play with. Here’s another efficiency he came up with:

‘On both Doomdark’s Revenge and Lords of Midnight it works on words so you’ve got a token for each word. In fact the vocabulary in both of them only goes up to 250 words. It’s all done by swapping round, putting different endings on them – there’s a few escape codes, so you can do an escape code for a new paragraph, an escape code for literal ascii characters, for commas and full stops, and an escape code for capitals at the beginning of a word. In Lords of Midnight I had more trouble fitting it in because it was the first time round and my estimates were further out than they were for Doomdark’s Revenge. The actual words for Lords of Midnight were stored in five-bit blocks so five bits for a letter, which meant having huge long strings of bytes which you had to access five bits at a time – a rather awkward little routine and it made putting the text up a little bit slower than in Doomdark’s Revenge which had more space and allowed me a byte per letter, which is a great luxury!’

More compression equals more characters, more locations – simple as that.

It’s worth noting that Singleton is planning a mobile version of his Midnight games… can’t wait.

And that brings me to the end of part 2. I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but I wanted to talk about games I feel were breathtaking in terms of their ambition, stories, virtual worlds, technology and cultural impact. I hope you enjoyed reading it.

7 thoughts on “A personal history of computers part two – the Sinclair years”

    1. Thank you! Will update that link. So impressed with the whole map making thing. It must take people ages. I never actually finished it either. I love games but never been that good at them. Also… Wonder how people do these maps. Presumably they are using an emulator rather than a real spectrum. Btw, I went through about three of the machines – the keys always stopped working. Sometimes I put up with it as long as it wasn’t the J key which meant you couldn’t load games.

      1. That was a common problem. The printed circuit board was common to wearing away in places, meaning certain keys no longer worked. (As it turned out, you could buy replacements for about a fiver.)

        When it happened to our Speccy, my Dad got around the problem by purchasing a ‘Fuller’ real plastic keyboard case that replaced the rubber-keyed official one, and that worked fine.. It also had space inside the case for the power supply and my Dad plumbed in an ‘On/Off’ switch on the top of the case so I didn’t need to pull the plug out of the wall to reset it. The only problem with the case was that the shifted functions were printed on little paper stickers that stuck on the front of the actual key they pertained to, and inevitably they all fell off in the end.

  1. Great write up Marc – lots of work gone into it. Brought back loads of memories for me – you are bang on about the BBC computers smelling of school for many of us but they did have games like Elite and Frak which were cool.

    I was also a massive fan of the Ultimate Play The Game stable – I think I even got my Jet Pac hi-score listed in an issue of 2000AD at the time and got a signed photo of Tharg out of it, thus confirming my uber-nerd status for all time 😉

    One small correction – the ZX81 did also come as a kit. My recollection is that it was sold as a ready made but you could buy it in bits for something like 20 quid cheaper. My Dad and I soldered it together over a few evenings after school… It was my grandad who had the ZX80. I guess all this runs in the family.

    It’s great how you relate how particular things inspired you as well, I guess there are a lot of people from our generation who ended up being programmers or whatever because of all those hours on the Speccie, although I’m not one of them.

    I’m off to read some more bits now!

  2. I lost many months of my life playing ultimate games, those and head over heels which is still magnificet to this day. Great read, thanks

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