(Daily Telegraph, 17 September 1998)
Some of today's top programmers started with Clive Sinclair's
baby. David McCandless on the legacy of the 'Speccy'
WHEN Dave Perry pulls up to his Laguna Beach office in a
blood-red Dodge Viper, its modified engine grinds to a halt
reluctantly. He emerges and slaps a pair of Raybans across
his tanned face. "I miss Devon Custard," he says,
his Irish voice thickened by a Californian drawl.
Fifteen hundred miles south in Austin, Texas, Mancunian Chris
Roberts is flicking through storyboards in a vast edit suite.
He has just directed a $27 million Hollywood sci-fi action
movie in Luxembourg and now he's deep into post-production.
At the same time, on the other side of the world in leafy
Leicestershire, millionaires Chris and Tim Stamper are readying
themselves for another meeting with their Japanese business
partners. The quiet, press-shy brothers are regarded around
the world as "the best of the best".
Rich, young, at the peak of their professions, these successful
British men have made their fortunes from computer games.
They grew up with games. They played them, programmed them,
transformed their passions into money. They - and many thousands
more - can thank one man and one piece of Eighties technology
for the direction their lives have taken. Step forward Sir
Clive Sinclair and the ZX Spectrum.
"We originally intended the Spectrum to teach people
about computers," says Sir Clive disappointedly from
his north London penthouse, "but the games just took
In the spring of 1982, the young electronics entrepreneur
emerged with a sleek black box about the size of a mousemat.
By today's standards, the ZX Spectrum 48K is barely a calculator
but at the time it was a sensation. It had a spongy rubber
keyboard and ran at two megahertz with eight-colour graphics.
It hooked up directly to your television and loaded programs
off cassette. It had 48 kilobytes of memory - in those days
a king's ransom in RAM (the calculator in Windows 95 is 55K).
And it had sound. Horrible, scratchy, beepy sound.
After all these years, Sinclair still has a maverick air
about him. "The Internet? Oh yes, we're getting that
this week," he says. He's aware of and pleased by, but
strangely distanced from, the culture surrounding his creation.
His vision of "computer-as-cheap-household-appliance"
was a solid business idea.
The public had savoured its forerunner, the ZX81 (16K RAM,
black and white graphics), and its even more primordial predecessor,
the ZX80 with its one kilobyte of memory. More than 300,000
ZX81s had been sold the previous year, millions had poured
into the Sinclair Research coffers, and armies of enthusiasts
awaited Clive's Next Big Thing. They were not disappointed.
At £175, the Spectrum was affordable to people from
all backgrounds all over the country. Here, for the first
time, was a powerful computer cheap enough for everyone.
Things started slowly. In the early days Spectrum software
was poor or non-existent. Terrible games, laughable attempts
at word-processors, and innumerable programs for guessing
the form of race horses. A minor cottage industry had mushroomed
around the Sinclair phenomenon.
Enthusiasts quickly turned to writing their own software
and, unwittingly, set the UK games industry into motion. Faces
six inches away from the screen, a whole generation of young
men grew up short-sighted, tapping the power of the Spectrum
and seeding the future games industry.
Tony Mott, editor of highbrow games monthly Edge magazine,
was there: "Just being part of that whole home-computing
movement was so exciting," he remembers. "In films
and on television, computers had always been portrayed as
these omnipotent tools that could do just about anything.
And suddenly you could get one for your home. It was one of
the most stimulating periods of my life."
"You could get right at it," agrees Sinclair. "You
could start programming the moment you got it. And it was
terribly rewarding. Very exciting. You could just type and
whoop - this thing was doing what you wanted. Fill the screen
Or maybe just the proverbial:
10 PRINT "Liverpool
is the best"
20 GOTO 10
Of course, much to Sinclair's chagrin, this generation of
bedroom savants just wrote games. "Games are a problem
you solve," he says. "I have real problems in my
life to solve. I don't need games."
Nevertheless, the Spectrum could pull off reasonably good-looking
graphics and, by a freak of design, its rubber keyboard made
a perfect joypad. There was a whole generation out there,
breast-fed Star Wars, weaned on Space Invaders, captivated
by technology and entertainment. Here was a medium evolving
as they watched. They could shape it, play a part in its development.
By Christmas 1982, thousands of bedroom coders had churned
out thousands of games, selling them through mail order, making
thousands of pounds. The next year, publishers and businessmen
piled into the market. A whole new industry was born and a
golden age of video games reigned.
The classlessness of the Spectrum was apparent. Political
commentary and social observation mixed with explosions and
aliens. The Super Mario of the time was a cute platform character
named Monty Mole, who went on an adventure to help the "striking
miners". The game even featured a cameo from Arthur Scargill.
There was a slew of working-class protagonists - Wally
Week, Miner Willy, Technician Ted, Lunar
Jetman - all taking part in adventures that mixed the
mundane and the domestic with the surreal.
One of the biggest selling Spectrum games, Jet Set Willy
(1984), for example, centered around a miner who had won untold
riches in the previous game (Manic Miner, 1983).
The game forced you to take a journey through a mansion populated
with flying pigs and animated penknives. And in Pyjamarama
(1984), cloth-capped northern stereotype Wally Week was trapped
in a nightmare and you had to mix and match objects and puzzles
to wake him.
Perry remembers the game well. "This really was the
title that turned me from a 'wannabe' into a real game programmer,"
he remembers. "By looking at the work done by the programmer,
I was able to learn all his secrets and within six months
was able to make games myself."
That was 12 years ago. Now Perry's development company, Shiny
Entertainment, sells millions of copies of games such as EarthWorm
Jim and MDK. Perry is president and his boyish
enthusiasm for games has led him to develop newer and better
He is joined in the stellar league by the likes of Fergus
McGovern, millionaire once, twice, probably three times over,
after the success of his home-grown Croydon company Probe
Software; Chris Roberts, of course; and Chris and Tim Stamper,
who transformed their Spectrum-games company, Ultimate Play
The Game, into Rare, the Nintendo developer and creator of
the N64 hits GoldenEye and Banjo Kazooie.
These young men worked at home, creating labours of love
on meagre budgets, and exhibited incredible creativity in
the face of horrific technical limitations.
However, bigger companies soon spotted the revenue and piled
in on the phenomenon. BT, The Mirror Group, Virgin, Thorn
EMI - all had software arms, churning out Spectrum games.
Films like Ghostbusters started the trend for film licensing
in games. Proper arcade games were stripped down to eight
colours and relaunched on the "Speccy". For true
disciples of Sinclair, this was the beginning of the dark
"More or less every other full-price game was either
a film licence or an arcade conversion," says Nick Humphries.
By day, he works "in IT". By night he runs The Den,
a Web site of archived Spectrum magazines and memorabilia.
It's the tip of an iceberg of Spectrum nostalgia saturating
For those reared on the Spectrum, all things come from Spectrum.
"Take Sonic The Hedgehog, for instance,"
says Humphries. "That's just a Speccy game called Manic
Miner with a larger play area, prettier graphics and better
The Spectrum had a staggering effect on computer culture
over the Eighties. It paved the way for other TV-based home
computers - the Commodore 64, the Atari ST - and even held
its own against dedicated games consoles such as the Sega
MegaDrive and the Super Nintendo.
In 1986, it was not impossible that Sinclair could take over
the world. But the Spectrum made no impact in America.
"Timex wanted to make the Spectrum under licence in
the States," recalls Sinclair. "They were producing
the units in Dundee for us. Very unwisely I think, they decided
to change the design for the US."
The redesign - featuring a "proper" keyboard and
a new case - held back its release for a year and by then,
the market had moved on.
The Spectrum has long since died but its legacy lives on.
Thousands exposed in their youth who didn't make it as games
millionaires, are now propping up the technology industry,
running Web sites, or are buried deep in some other technology-driven
pastime. Some, like legendary prodigy Matthew Smith who programmed
Jet Set Willy, have long since disappeared and are
the subject of cults on the Internet.
And, of course, everyone remembers Sir Clive. If not for
the Spectrum, maybe for the ill-fated electric tricycle, the
C5, and his later 16-bit machine, the QL.
Even now, he hopes to regain the glory with a new computer,
a Spectrum for the Millenium. It currently exists "on
paper" and in his head. "It's a daunting task,"
he sighs, "But I think it can be done."
But will it be good for games?
"Yes it will be very attractive for games. I will encourage
games development." Very shrewd.