Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My Rainbow Connection

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, a fact that quite frankly blows my mind just a little.

We had a Spectrum, my brother and I, after months of attending the local Computer Club and watching the slow transition of those in the group from the modest but limited ZX81 through to models that were a little more ambitious in memory and performance - including the Speccy. Money was saved, cases were argued (including the old chestnut that it would improve our education) and, eventually, as a family we made the trip down to Dunedin to pick up the new addition, all 16 kilobytes, peripherals, manuals and polystyrene packaging of it. It was a big moment in my adolescent life. I was thirteen and this looked for all the world like the future in our spare room. We loved our ZX Spectrum, lavishing it with hours of our developing lives and crafting it a fuzzy blue workstation of its very own, with holes for its coaxial cables and a shelf for its cassette player. Within a year or so we made a further plunge and with the help of a school friend, upgraded our little beauty to a more impressive 48k.
Let other blogs and sites tell of games and cheats and fledgling forays into BASIC and COBOL; my Spectrum experience was forged in site of these. I was no programmer, although my early attempts at computer graphics started with our home machine; nor was I a gamer, my lot in digital life seemingly ever to be terminated (with extreme prejudice) around the end of level three of every game I've ever played. My Spectrum experience was however an immersive one: lured by glossy ads and the promise that my comic heroes (Dredd, Nemesis the Warlock, Strontium Dog, Rogue Trooper, Dan Dare) would be realised in interactive, noisy 8 bit form. I became savvy to the Spectrum phenomena of marketing and fan culture - the slick advertising that promised so much (even if it delivered slightly less), the cheat-sheets and playground negotiations of these and bootleg game cassettes, the specialist magazines with their infinite lives pokes and codes. Every day trip to Dunedin had to involve two shop visits: to London Bookshops for White Dwarf magazine, and to David Reid Electronics, who'd sold us the computer and had many more cheap games and cassettes to copy others on to.

Somewhere amidst travelling with Bilbo Baggins, collecting Chuckie's Eggs and Jet-Setting with Willy I grew up. I learned the shrewdness of brand recognition (Melbourne House games were often literary based - The Hobbit, Sherlock Holmes, earnest but very well put together, Ultimate games - Sabre Wulf, Atic Atac, were punchy, dynamic, imaginative and innovative) and brand loyalty (I spit on you, Amstrad! et cetera). I learned my limitations as a programmer and gamer. But I communicated wit other kids about our shared interest in the computer, I made friends, and by god I actually got more out of it than I put into it. That's a rare thing in life right there. In time the world moved on: my friends upgraded to C64s or Amigas, and our school BBC Micros became robust, cuboid early Apple Macs. Ten years on from our ZX Spectrum I was eventually writing university essays on a word processor, then using email, Telnet, and eventually the World Wide Web. Technology, as George Lucas would modestly put it, had caught up with me. But my first love, for ever and always, will be a slim, black box with rubber keys and a non-threatening 80s-sharp rainbow flash on the corner.


  1. I used to go to Eclipse Radio in Lwr Stuart St and drool over the computers in their windows. Commodore Vic 20, BBC Micro, and of course the ZX range.

    I even met someone who had the ZX80. Unexpandable 1k. Only $99, though. Ridiculous, but amazing.

    My friends had various computers, including the ZX81, where I played Espionage Island, and that's when I fell in love with Adventure Games. I also saw a colour Apple on Spot On, with a graphical adventure! Astounding!

    And we did get a 48k Spectrum a little later, I think it was 1985, but that was mostly just for arcade games. Jet Set Willy, etc. I'm still not very good at video games.

  2. I wish I had the ZX Spectrum (like my cousins did). Instead the Timex Sinclear 1000... which was the ZX81 with a whole 2K base memory!!! (Opposed to 1K.)

    And then we grew up a bit and changed to an Amstrad 464, often cited as the best computer evah of the time! Still with cassette programs and only a green screen...

  3. GL - Yes, I went to Eclipse, too! What was the name of the bookshop next to the Civic Centre escalators? I recall getting a lot of cheap games from there, too. Pretty sure one of them was Horace and the Spiders...

    jamas - yeah I had one friend with an Amstrad, and of course Amstrad took over Sinclair in the end didn't they? Here's one for you though - my old flatmate at the same time had a Dick Smith Wizard...