Recently, I got into an argument with a random Twitter troll who, for reasons best known to himself, refused to believe that I’d ever owned a ZX Spectrum. This, despite my actually providing this rather nostalgic photo of my young self, receiving said Speccy one utterly glorious Christmas morning.
According to said troll, being a fan of Dizzy is a dead giveaway that my memories are fake.
It’s a weird, weird hill to die on… but we live in strange times.
Anyway, it got me thinking about the first Spectrum games that I owned. I’m prone to reminisce over the games that defined the machine for me, (such as the aforementioned Dizzy, Chaos, Bak 2 Skool, et al), but I hadn’t really spent much time thinking about all the other random games that filled my cassette box… As I begun to think back and try to work out a chronology, more and more titles came into focus in my memory – rather like staring into the night sky as more and more stars become visible…
So let’s take a look at my half remembered chronology of Speccy games.
First off… it’s Christmas morning and after years of yearning, and convincing myself that we’d never be able to afford one, I’ve finally received my first ever computer. My beloved ZX Spectrum.
My mother helps me hook it up to the living room TV (a mistake she rectifies a week or so later with a dodgy black and white portable that could live in my bedroom, thus allowing her to actually watch something again), and I eagerly load up the first game that I received with the system.
First Steps with the Mr. Men
Not a glorious start, it has to be said. I have little memory of this game, as I probably only played it that one time. As I remember it, there were little ice creams that popped up on the screen and I had to run around collecting them. I think I was playing as Mr. Bump at one point. This is clearly aimed at young children and at 8 years old, it’s way too slow for me… moving on.
This second game is a much better outing and my first ever puzzle game. You’re this little archer dude and you have to run around collecting arrows that you can shoot to open doors or kill enemies, find keys to open locks, walk through one-way gates and such. Some of the levels are well thought out and this thing is days of fun… and it’s really difficult too. The enemies are just these little crosses that fly around the level at breakneck speed. They hug the walls, but kill you just by being next to you. Open the wrong door and fifty of these things will just start flying out like a swarm of bees from a hive. As you see them coming from just off screen, your death isn’t immediate, but it is definite… the whole thing is mildly terrifying.
Man, I loved this game… it’s essentially a 2D physics game where you control a vehicle and try to get to the end of several obstacle courses within a qualifying time. It’s an early example of the ubiquitous ‘motocross bike’ games where the aim is to get up some speed whilst actually keeping the wheels on the ground, lest the physics throw you upside down or get you stuck on an obstacle. It’s surprising how similar the gameplay feels to the modern versions, given that it came out in ’87.
Again, it’s brutally difficult but crucially the learning curve is achievable. Pretty sure I managed to get through all of the courses eventually.
Master of Magic
I gotta be honest, this game confused the hell out of me as a kid. It’s a dungeon crawler from Richard Darling. I played it a fair bit, but I think I was too young to realise I needed to start mapping out the rooms and working out how to dispatch certain enemies. I revisited the game quite recently and it makes a lot more sense as an adult… it’s pretty solid. Unfortunately, I also discovered it’s one of those games that are better on the C64. Sorry.
Anyway, this game was published by Mastertronic’s ‘M.A.D.’ label and had this dude in a fedora on the label saying, ‘You bought the game, now play it!’. That stuck in my head for… well, the rest of my life. No idea why.
These were my only games for the first week or two, but it’s not long before I’ve saved some pocket money. There was a toy shop not too far from me, ‘Toycraft 70’ (I couldn't find a photo of this place anywhere), and every few weeks I’d have saved up enough money for a budget title. I’d make my way up to the shop, and ask the incredibly patient shopkeeper to pull down the trays of Spectrum games he kept on the top shelf behind the counter, and I’d spend hours going through them, reading the blurb, looking at screenshots, and narrowing down my choices. The fact that I’m alive today is a testament to the shopkeeper’s willpower, in not murdering me where I stood.
I’m too young at this point to be interested in Spectrum magazines, so I’m not reading reviews – all I have to go on is the cassette tape covers, and word of mouth.
So next up we have:
My first platformer!! This is basically just a Manic Miner clone, but I’ve not played Manic Miner at this point (actually, sorry, I never owned Manic Miner as a kid), and I love it to bits. It’s incredibly difficult and I can’t remember how far through it I’ve got, but I remember still playing it the following Christmas. Looking back, it seems it got a pretty mediocre reception, but I have fond memories of it.
A knock off of Gauntlet, (which I’ve yet to discover, and couldn’t have afforded anyway). Again, this game got absolutely trashed in the reviews, but I’ve not read them and I’m drawn to the weird alien creature on the front cover, which has absolutely nothing to do with the game whatsoever.
Despite being universally hated, I loved this game! I mean, it’s Gauntlet. It’s 2 player, so I rope my mum into playing with me, and we plough through 27 levels of dungeon fun. I remember realising certain tactics, like destroying the enemy spawn points as a priority, and weirdly, that Hobbo the Elf should always be the one to open doors, as Thor the warrior is so big he can accidentally waste multiple keys by hitting both doors at once.
A fast paced arcade shooter from Ultimate. It’s crazy difficult, and at such a young age I’m not sure I understood how to progress… but it’s fast, and fun, and looks great. Crazy to think this came out so much earlier than the other games in my list… Ultimate really knew what they were doing.
I think this was given to me by the headmistress' secretary at my primary school... I can't remember why!
It’s basically a Hunchback clone. Wild how many clones were out there and how that was just fine and no-one got sued. It’s not a bad clone, but the gameplay’s not great to start with… the levels get very repetitive after a while, but I played it to death anyway.
Finally, I get my hands on Dizzy. I’ve already played this countless times on a friend’s Amstrad, so I’m already well in love with the game and the character. It’s literally a dream come true to finally have Dizzy on a machine in my own bedroom, where no-one can kick me off or tell me to ‘go outside and play’… I can just work my way through the game. Tbh, I’m not sure I ever completed it as a kid, though definitely did through emulation later on.
This was a genuinely brilliant game with crazy colourful graphics and pretty decent physics. I played it a lot, but it always sticks in my memory as a game that I used when trying to make my first game. Before I understood anything about coding, I attempted to create a new game by copying the first half of my Dynatron mission tape, followed by the second half of my Saracen tape - thinking it would result in some kind of hybrid mash-up game with elements from both.
It did not.
Daley Thompson’s Decathlon
I must have picked this up at a bootsale, or had it donated by an adult… as this was in a big box and therefore well and truly out of my budget. Of course, it’s a classic, and I spent hours either hammering on the ‘O’ and ‘P’ keys, or turning my joystick upside-down and shaking it for all it was worth.
Actually, I think this belonged to the kid next door, but I played it a lot… a great bike racing game… really fast and fluid, and you can send the bike flying through the air. Hours of fun.
Oh man, just look at those beautiful big sprites! I loved the show as a kid and clearly remember it first being introduced by Niel Buchanan on the Saturday kid's show '73'. So I was excited to play the video game and it didn't disappoint. It was hard though... I don't remember ever getting beyond one or two tasks for 'im upstairs. I should try playing this again as an adult and see if the puzzles are any easier to grasp...
That's about all I can remember from the first few weeks and months of my Spectrum love affair. Subsequent birthdays and Christmases would yeild a glut of new games to play; basic and largely futile attempts at software piracy would occurr whenever I borrowed a game from a friend... and over the years my collection grew, up until I upgraded from my trusty ZX Spectrum to an Amstrad CPC464 plus.
Perhaps I'll make another post with the first games I played on that machine too... but as it's been three years since my last post, I wouldn't hold your breath!