For a brief moment in the Eighties, Britain was a technology superpower, with the iconic ZX Spectrum earning Sir Clive Sinclair his ‘Sir’ and turning Britain into a fizzing hub of game-creation.
There are more than 10,000 games for Spectrum, many dreamed up by odd men in sheds with extraordinary hair.
Now, the return of the console, complete with its trademark ‘fleshy’ rubber keys, is set to bring a manly tear to many a gamer Dad’s cheek.
A KickStarter project is now close to achieving its goal, as Steve Wiltshire of Elite games, one of the biggest publishers of Spectrum games, explains. said he’s confident that his resurrection will happen, with a few “big” pledges on the way.
“I’ve worked with that rubber keyboard for thirty years,” he says. The revamped console – a down-to-the-last-detail replica – works with iPad via Bluetooth, and an app lets you play all the best games.
How the ZX Spectrum put Britain ahead of the world
“God bless Sir Clive!” says The Gadget Show’s Jason Bradbury. “Unlike his first computer, the ZX81, the ZX Spectrum was full colour; it brought arcade gaming into my home, and put the UK ahead of the world in IT.”
Indeed. As Spectrum mania took hold, Britain produced some of the coolest games on Earth, despite gamers having to load them from cassettes, a process which took several minutes of near-intolerable howls and screeches when they crashed immediately.
It SMASHED its big-budget American rival
“The Commodore was just big, full of air, and dull,” says Rik Dickinson, designer of the original console.
“Spectrum had all those weird illustrations, and that weird, funky feel. It turned into a frenzy.”
The Commodore also cost £399 while the Spectrum quickly dropped to £100, meaning the “commie 64” quickly assumed the mantle of the enemy for swathes of British youngsters.
British oddballs made masterpieces of madness
“Unlike modern, mega-budget console games, Spectrum games stand (or fall) on their game-play; that balance of challenge and reward,” says Wiltshire.
“They’re the Eighties equivalent of Candy Crush,” On Spectrum, one-man DIY game studios thrived. Classic British eccentrics such as Jeff Minter became rich, despite being so obsessed with llamas he built his own farm and released games titled Mama Llama and Metagalactic Llamas Battle at the Edge of Time.
Those ‘fleshy’ rubber keys: a ‘Eureka’ moment
The rubbery keys on the Spectrum were much-mocked by owners of the rival Commodore 64 but the basic idea was pioneering, and now used in almost all PCs.
Rik Dickinson, whose original CAD designs are being used for the new version, used one sheet of rubber to replace hundreds of parts. “It was the most economic method of creating a true moving key keyboard.
Most computer keyboards use that principle today, just evolved. The Spectrum was the first.”
It had 10,000 games - and its masterpiece is now taught at university
Making games for Spectrum was cheap: they came on cassette, not cartridge, and were simple to write (magazines came with games you could type in yourself). Many were unimaginably awful (Race Ace, for instance, was so badly designed it was impossible to win – ever), others were icons. “Matthew Smith’s Manic Miner for the ZX Spectrum is perfect,” says Steve Wiltshire of Elite games.
“It’s so exquisitely crafted that it’s now anaylsed and taught as part of undergraduate courses in game development.”
The guy who made the original is watching it closely
The design of the new keyboard is based on the original CAD designs Rik Dickinson handed to Clive Sinclair, and he has consulted with Elite to ensure the recreation is near perfect.
“I always preferred the ZX81, but that’s probably just a designer thing,” he says. “The Spectrum had colour, and this weird look, and all these young minds soaked up all these space-age graphics like blotting paper. Was it the affordability? I wish I knew.”
Rubber-key fetishists can even use it for email
“We want it to feel exactly like the original,” says Wiltshire.
“Initially we’re aiming at 30, 40 and 50-something largely (but not exclusively) British men, but we hope to break into a bigger market of cool gamers. The Spectrum is a British design classic, like the Mini.”
The new machine pairs with iPad via Bluetooth, and Elite’s app (ZX Spectrum: Elite Collection) does the work, with various collections of games on sale within, including timeless classics such as Boulder Dash, Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy.
The keyboard will also work perfectly well for other apps, such as email. Wiltshire plans it to retail at around £50, cheaper than normal, uncool iPad keyboards.