The ZX Spectrum was so successful it got the console’s creator, Clive Sinclair, knighted, making it the only computer to level someone up in the real world. Nowadays, sixteen kilobytes isn’t even enough to advertise a modern game, but back then it held worlds that could take longer to play than to program.
With a recent retro resurgence of Spectrum hardware (the Bluetooth Recreated Sinclair ZX Spectrum and the ZX Spectrum Vega, for those who’d rather spend hundreds of dollars than download an emulator), we’re looking back at fifteen of the Spectrum’s best games. Just be warned that while the videos capture authentic gaming history, most sound like a Dalek screaming while being filled with helium.
1988 | Irem
R-Type was the blood of side-scrolling shooters, and the Spectrum conversion was the most incredible compression of anything in space outside of a black hole. Which will also suck you in and dilate your time. Hours pass in the real world while you swear you’ve only been enjoying the revolutionary weapon system for a few minutes.
The game’s graphics are still gorgeous. At the time they were a vision of computer artistry, and now they’re resonating with retro pixel remakes. It’s nice to know some people poured as much love into the tech the first time round.
1989 | Taito
Chase HQ is a rare Spectrum game that doesn’t make you wish you were deaf on the title screen. It’s also a rare game because “One of the best games ever” isn’t a common quality. The original arcade cabinet turbo-boosted the entire driving genre, giving people more to fight than a clock, and the Spectrum conversion fit more impossible awesome into primitive technology than black and white episodes of Doctor Who.
Lords of Midnight
1984 | Mike Singleton
Lords of Midnight was the Spectrum’s Lord of the Rings (even though it already had an excellent The Hobbit): a genre-defining advancement in the art. And Lords of Midnight had better graphics. The game also offered a choice of routes, which remains unmatched to this day. These weren’t routes like “go left or right” or “be super nice or ridiculously evil.” You could defeat Doomdark by advancing as a lone hero through a regular adventure or by recruiting fellow lords so that your wargaming armies stormed his castle. Meanwhile, in 2016, we think we’ve got freedom if our grizzled third-person angry-dude can skip cutscenes.
1987 | Oliver Twins
The Dizzy franchise was remarkably realistic. Because you were an egg who liked to jump around and touching almost anything would kill you. This in a world where you had to carry objects back-and-forth across a lethal landscape to solve puzzles, and in several games, you only had one space in your inventory. It was more painfully tedious, death-risking work for children than the Industrial Revolution. And at least that didn’t pretend to be fun. But Dizzy was fun. We’ll just warn you that it’s aged like a real egg: try it twenty years later and it’ll probably kill you.
1988 | Ocean Software
At the opposite extreme of vulnerability is Target: Renegade, which stars a martial arts master out to kill Mr. Big in revenge for killing his brother. Because when you’re beating up the entire world, you don’t need a story. In two player mode, you were both called Renegade. Because when something works, you don’t change it; and when that thing is kicking everyone you meet, no one needs to (or stays conscious long enough to) know anything else.
Head over Heels
1987 | Ocean Software
You wouldn’t expect Batman to be beaten by two dogs, but on the Spectrum all things were possible. Batman and Knight Lore were excellent isometric platformers—a game genre on par with the trilobite in terms of modern design—but Head over Heels leapt right over them with the then-revolutionary ability to switch between characters. Head could jump higher and shoot, Heels could run faster and carry objects, and alternating between them added unprecedented sophistication to puzzles. (Beyond the usual isometric platformer ‘puzzle’ of “where exactly is that floating block anyway.”)
1984 | David Reidy & Helen Reidy
Skool Daze sounds like a game developer’s attempt to make kids love school. But decades before Bully, this game gave players the glorious freedom to misbehave at school for points. Your “hero” could deface school crests, punch out other students, throw things at teachers, and get other students in trouble for it. Your long term goal was to extract your report card from the school safe, but it was possible to earn endless points just messing around. Which is exactly what you did.
The Great Escape
1986 | Denton Designs
The Great Escape was set after most other World War II games—you were an allied soldier versus the Nazis, but you’d already lost. Exploring the prison camp as an unarmed POW involved a lot of learning and planning. You could even simulate the silent spying and brooding of the aspiring escapee: stop controlling your character for a while and he’ll automatically follow the camp schedule of roll call, exercise, and more, ready for you to spring into action when you see an opportunity. We’d like to see this ability in more games: let the character go through the boring bits and we’ll take over when we see something worth our time.
1983 | Tim and Chris Stamper
Atic Atac was a frantic top-down maze exploration-and-escape game. Where a gamer would expect a maze to mean peacefully plotting maps on graph paper, many rooms instantly spawned enemies to create a mini-Gauntlet. Even when you weren’t being attacked, your character was gradually but constantly starving to death. The spiritual sequel Sabre Wulf added a jungle setting and various minor improvements.
1982 | Addictive Games
Most video games have the computer crunch numbers so that the human can play a game. Football Manager realized that players would enjoy the opposite, no matter how ridiculous that sounds. The ludicrously successful game invented an entire genre of turning sports into spreadsheets, and one of the most satisfying sections was watching the match play out after your management. Electronic accounting sounds like a robot’s attempt to erase the concept of fun. But the result has taken up more human lifetime than every Terminator put together.
1989 | Maxis
Sim City! If we have to say any more than that, then thanks for making this the first thing you ever read about video games. (It’s a good place to start, chronologically speaking.) The Sim City series expanded far beyond anyone’s expectations, and it’s easy to see why. Even the simplistic Spectrum version could consume an entire night. And it never once refused to work because it didn’t have an internet connection. If only because no one did back then.
1987 | Taito
Bubble Bobble was one of the best arcade games of all time, and Rainbow Islands was even better. The simple arcade action evolved around the unique platforming-combat mechanic of rainbows, which could be jumped from and collapsed onto enemies. This was back when even tiny teams felt they should add more to a sequel than a new setting and an ominous-sounding subtitle. (Nowadays, we’d be getting “Bubble Bobble: Judgement” and adverts for DLC season passes).
1985 | Julian Gollop
Chaos featured up to eight wizards locked in a box and told to kill each other, and remains one of the best ideas for a game ever made. The primitive AI made some basic mistakes, but the more we play it the more we realize that was a way of defending humanity. Because when you lock artificially intelligent wizards into a computer and tell them to get good at killing each other, you’d better have a plan for when they escape.
1983 | Matthew Smith
Manic Miner’s bright platforms were the most savagely lethal torture traps ever invented. The guy from Saw would play two levels of this and wonder who hurt the people responsible. And it’s still absolutely brilliant. Fiendishly floaty challenges, pixel perfect jumps, and a genuine sense of progress when you make it to a new level. Even when you die instantly. You’ll just start again for another go. Jet Set Willy expanded the idea to a mansion, but the simple single screen challenges of Miner made it a much more intense experience.
1984 | David Braben and Ian Bell
Elite is an impossibly awesome recipe for the perfect game. And it worked. An open-ended 3D galaxy filled with money to make and space pirates to destroy, and it turned out that sheer greed was a far better motivator than even the most evil alien armada. You could fight the evil Thargoids, work for the Galactic Navy, mine asteroids, or engage in piracy, but the most satisfying moment was finding a fast and profitable cargo route between neighboring planets and just racking up the cash. All on a computer you could cripple by asking it to load a jpg.
Luke McKinney is a freelance contributor.