The majesty of ZX Spectrum loading screens

We celebrate a bygone era of blocky 8-bit artwork, with a fond look back at the ZX Spectrum’s most dramatic and downright bizarre loading screens…

I’m excitedly playing Dead Rising 2, and enjoying its anarchic, blackly comic action. I’ve killed the walking dead with drills, park benches and tennis rackets, and rescued screaming old ladies from undead hordes. But all-too frequently, I find myself mildly irked by the game’s frequent loading times. Having traversed one zombie-infested area, I become irritated as the console dutifully loads the next. A terrible inconvenience, I think.

But then I realise something else: approximately 25 years ago, I wouldn’t have been waiting for a few seconds for an area to load, but a few minutes. In the age of the cheap, 8-bit home computer, when some bright spark decided to use audio tapes as a means of data storage, games took roughly as long to load as it might take to prepare an evening meal.

For ZX Spectrum owners such as myself, this often meant that I’d spend almost as long loading a game as I would playing it. It also meant that, once a game had been carefully chosen from one of the mountains of cassette tapes strewn around my bedroom, I’d have to sit and listen to approximately four minutes of screeching and warbling as the information loaded into the computer.

This was accompanied by the kind of light display that would require epilepsy warnings these days, as the stream of data was represented onscreen by a 30mm thick band of flickering colours that ran all the way around the television.

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Fortunately, most game designers of the era were thoughtful enough to provide a loading screen for you to stare at for those four lonely minutes. These provided a tantalising glimpse of the game you were waiting impatiently to get your hands on, and were, in themselves, like little works of art, packed with drama and mystery.

Consider the loading screen to Imagine’s early beat-em-up masterpiece Renegade, one of the earliest games to allow players to knee a virtual opponent in the crotch. In it, a bare-chested George Michael gesticulates aggressively at the viewer, apparently oblivious to the imminent punch in the ear he’s about to receive from Nicolas Cage who, for reasons best known to himself, is dressed as a woman. Meanwhile, a punk rocker looms up menacingly in the foreground, pale-faced and jaundiced of eye.

What does it all mean? For an impressionable nine year-old, it was as surreal as anything dreamed up by Rene Magritte or Salvador Dali, and even now it’s oddly disquieting – but nowhere near as disquieting as the loading screen for Movie, it should be noted.

The game itself was an isometric arcade adventure, in which you played a private detective hired to find a cassette tape while avoiding various mobsters. Movie‘s loading screen, thanks in part to the colour limitations of the Spectrum (a phenomenon familiar to some as attribute clash), was like a David Lynch nightmare coupled with an LSD flashback, in which blocks of garish colour obfuscated what appeared to be a man in a dressing gown smoking a massive blue cigarette…

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Most loading screens, however, displayed far more interesting, detailed graphics than the actual games themselves could muster. Consider the loading screen for the 1985 RPG, Journey’s End, which depicts a squirrel watching three figures of decreasing size attacking a tiny castle.

For the Spectrum, it’s quite detailed – the artist has even managed to sketch in a handful of flies buzzing around the castle’s battlements.

Now look at the game itself:

You may laugh, but this was the mid-80s equivalent of a BioWare game, and came with a list of instructions the length of the Magna Carta.

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Technology has gradually rendered the loading screen more-or-less redundant, of course, and videogame developers have found increasingly cunning ways of disguising the moments where a new level is being loaded up. In the original Mass Effect, the fact that the game was busily imbibing the data for a new area was disguised by trapping the player in a lift.

Other games have given impatient players something to amuse their otherwise idle thumbs during lengthy loading times – most notably Namco’s Ridge Racer series, the first of which provided a quick blast on Galaxian.

But while Namco have the patent on loading screen mini-games, they’ve been infrequently used since the 80s. On the ZX Spectrum, gamers wearily waiting for Joe Blade 2 to finish loading could amuse themselves with a cut-down version of Pac-Man.

ZX Spectrum loading screens, therefore, were artistic, dramatic, surreal, and showed occasional flashes of innovation. All that entertainment and technical genius came at a price, however – such was the sloth-like speed of cassette-based data transfer, the addition of a loading screen (which often amounted to little more than a piffling 6kb) extended a game’s loading time by an extra minute or more.

Still, if there were no loading screens in the 1980s, we’d never have been treated to the strange delights of Kick Off 2’s introductory digital masterpiece, in which two floating men (one of whom looks uncannily like Geoff Capes, the shot putter) stare in horror at the looming presence of the Death Star. They don’t make ’em like that any more.

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