The ZX Spectrum and I go way back. I was only a child, still in early primary school. I didn’t know anything about how machines work let alone how a small simple looking keyboard laden with stylish looking rubber keys can play some of the most imaginative games I’ve ever seen. They were colourful too.
The Sinclair ZX Spectrum: A Visual Compendium, published by Bitmap Books and designed by Sam Dyer takes me back to those times. There was no tessellation or aliasing, it was all pixel art with the use of only a handful of colours, it looked fantastic. Developers of the cassette games designed some weird and wonderful ones and this book displays the very best of them all. I was happy to review it thanks to the wonderful guys at Funstock.co.uk.
The book opens up with a brief history lesson in the art of pixel art from Ste Pickford who is a highly acclaimed graphic artist. He outlines the trials and tribulations that went with drawing sprites whilst ticking within the limitations of the ‘Speccy’. It’s a short but insightful read and sets the tone nicely for the rest of the book. This is followed by, of course, a short story surrounding the creation of this iconic piece of kit that was a precursor to the games we play today. Told by none other than Rick Dickinson who designed the ZX Spectrum, this single page write up tells of how Rick and his team tried hard to live up to consumer expectations quoting “The demand was far stronger than our wildest hopes and we just couldn’t make them fast enough”. He talks about the origins of the decision to implement silicone rubber keys to make it more attractive yet cheaper to make. It’s an endearing account from Rick and although the games were simple, the machine certainly wasn’t.
The rest of the 304 pages are dominated by double page spread screenshots and box art of games that made the Sinclair ZX Spectrum an icon of the industry. Classics that took me back such as Knight Lore, Skool Daze and Chuckie Egg not forgetting the Fantastic Dizzy games. Each page has a different game and the imagery is assisted with a short paragraph from one of the games developers mentioning their account of making said game. Underwurlde was an excellent adventure game. It’s dedicated page shows a screenshot of the main character sprite which was a little guy in white wearing a helmet stood atop a set of cupboards or an armoire with red, blue and pink coloured ghosts around him. It shows how simple game design helped create interesting world’s. Beside the image, the Stamper Brothers, who of course helped create Underwurlde, tells of how the Spectrum was the perfect games machine as it held games on new pensive cassette tapes and the size of the console meant you could hide it under your jumper. It’s these short quotes that opened my eyes on those times. I was just a kid, I just wanted to play.
Occasionally in the book, there are developer sections which are three or four pages long. They take us back to popular games developers such as Durell (Turbo Esprit, Critical Mass and Saboteur) and Vortex Software (Highway Encounter, H.A.T.E. and Deflektor) tells on how the 1980’s was a busy decade and games took 9 to 12 months to create. Vortex designed some of the more technically advanced games using more of the small amount of memory devs got to play with back then. We are talking kilobytes of memory which is the reason and part of the charm of the simplistic design of the ZX Spectrum. People had never seem games like these before so it was received spectacularly well.
The Sinclair ZX Spectrum: A Visual Compendium also tells of a few popular magazines that helped market the console and it’s games. Writers of ‘Your Sinclair’ magazine published in 1983 to 1993 tell of how they spent late nights “eating pizza in a darkened office after an evening in the pub, playing games that nobody else in the world had seen.” to write up reviews and previews of titles that had yet to be released. These sections provide a break from game designing to a look into the world of journalism of the 1980’s era, as a reviewer myself, it was inspiring to read.
All in all, the third entry of the Visual Compendium series of books from Bitmap Books is an excellent window into the world of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. It’s games were simple but fun to play and by the sounds of some of the developers featured within, fun to create and design too. This is a collectors item that every ZX Spectrum fan should own.