Monday, April 23, 2012

Salute the Spectrum!

I used to state that games should never break the 5 minute rule. This rule was a construct of my own, which states that if I haven't killed something in the last 5 minutes, then I am reaching for the off switch and your game is history. And, for a long time, I stood by it. I still use a version of it, except I am a bit more flexible with the time and the actual nature of the thing I had to have done since then. Nowadays, my rule is probably better worded as "If I get bored, it's over. So don't let me get bored."

5 minutes. It's not really too much to ask, is it? Just give me something to DO at least once every 5 minutes. Don't make me sit there watching people spout nonsense for 10 minutes. Don't wrest control from me for half an hour. Don't reduce me to looking through a pair of sodding binoculars and NOTHING ELSE for the greater part of the first HOUR of your "game", Mr. Kojima. Just make sure that I have input at least every 5 minutes.

This 5 minute figure may seem like an arbitrary time, but it really isn't. It is, in fact, a length of time that I was conditioned to accept. Back in my early teenage days, 5 minutes was roughly how long it took for a game to load on my ZX Spectrum. Well, when I say "load" I actually mean "hopefully load", because it was not always guaranteed that the game would actually start at the end of this enforced wait. But, strangely, I never seemed to mind as much as one would think today. Today, if a game sits on "loading" for anything beyond 30 seconds, I get antsy. 12 year old me was, however, a bit more patient and forgiving.

Possibly it was because the few moments immediately following the 5 minute wait were invariably full of such joy and wonder. The graphics may have been crude, the music may have been naught but a series of beeps, and anything more than 2 colours on the screen caused some nightmarish effects as the poor computer tried to cycle through all colours available at the same time, but there was no denying that what was happening in front of me was magic.

Here was an amorphous blob, trying to go skiing. Except, in order to actually get to the slope, he first had to cross a road full of insanely fast traffic. Streams of motorcycles, and genocidal ambulances meant that only one out of every four games involved any skiing at all. Skiing was merely pressing left or right, but I loved it. Horace was an actual mascot, despite looking for the entire world like a cumstain with eyes.

Gamings first superstar

Next up, a spaceman has to build a rocket. He does this by means of a jet engine strapped to his back, which he can use to lift him off the ground. Touch the rocket pieces to put them together, and then wait for the fuel to just drop onto the screen. Shoot all the aliens that come at you, even if they look like Earth constructs. Especially if they look like fighter jets, although if you just sit on the highest platform, face right, and hold the fire button down, nothing will ever actually reach you.

This guy? He is dreaming, and needs to find a way to wake himself up for work. Naturally, this means that you have to carry items all around the dreamscape version of your house, and use them appropriately. Spend a penny in the bathroom? Games writing doesn't get any better than this, folks!

Exhibit D? HE'S AN EGG! And yet, that egg had much more personality than the entirety of Delta Squad combined.

Do yourself a favour, by the way. Go and play this little beauty. 3D Deathchase is a marvel of a game, programmed inside 16k on a machine with no graphics acceleration and no native 3D support whatsoever. And yet, despite the obvious superiority of games technology today, I would argue that very few have ever come as close to making you feel in the action as that one did. You can see the enemy bikers snarling at you, even though all they are are some fairly blocky sprites. Your brain draws you in, fills in the blanks, and allows you to imagine tearassing along at 300 miles per hour!

The ZX Spectrum deserves its place in history, because there is a good reason why every single person who owned one has such fond memories of it. It gave us a gateway to imagination. We all had tapes full of games that we never played, and we all tried our hands at programming our own games. This often meant typing lines of code from a magazine, only to find that somewhere within the 1000+ lines we made an error. (Or, worse, we copied it correctly but the magazine got it wrong!) We still tried, though, because at its heart we could see how friendly this little black box was. There were technically superior machines out even then, but the Spectrum led the way. Its legacy is immeasurable, but is one that the behemoths of the industry today would be wise to learn from.

Tonight, if you are a gamer, raise a glass to an old friend. If you were there, you know what it meant. And if you weren't, be respectful, because it probably inspired the games you are playing today.


  1. The '5 minute rule', eh? Fair play. I remember the loading times for my Amstrad CPC464. I'd start the casette, go and eat dinner, and when I finished I'd have a lovely pixely menu screen waiting for me. Ah, the good old days.

  2. The ZX Spectrum was what helped me become a gamer. My brother ha d a 128k when I was about 4 or so and I longed to play such games as Chaos with him, and watched him playing Dizzy. Brilliant stuff. Mum should never have ebayed it :(