The Beginner’s Guide to the ZX Spectrum

begginersguidezx1I’m English. I rarely think about what that actually means. Maybe these days, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. Nowadays, it’s easy for young ‘uns who know fuck all about fuck all to complain about everything this country stands for and has to offer. I sometimes get it. Our culture these days is mostly dominated by football players, X-Factor contestants and the minor career resurgence of whichever washed-up celebrity can suck off the most ostrich cocks in a jungle. Growing up here was different, though.

You were taught to embrace your heritage. We had street parties celebrating the Queen’s various jubilees, we watched Dangermouse, our pop music was eccentric rather than some autotuned R’n’B filth and the only pork we ate came as horrible pork chops that made us miserable. Not some sugary, shredded pulled pork bullshit that everyone eats now because of a couple of episodes of Man Vs. Food.

The most quintessentially English thing however was the ZX Spectrum. Affectionately known as the Speccy, this affordable home computer was the first victor of what we now call the ‘console wars.’ Released in 1982 and developed by Sir Clive Sinclair, a balding uber-nerd that would make Sheldon Cooper look like James Bond (the recent handsome one, not that bullshit Pierce Brosnan fucker), the Speccy was initially intended as some sort of business computer. With its rubber keyboard (that mostly felt like trying to type on eyes), a one-channel sound chip that could only BEEP loudly at you, a joystick interface that seemed to be designed to brick the whole computer, and a screen display that handled colour rather less well than the average KKK member, the Speccy clearly wasn’t meant to be used by a nation of kids and young adults to play games. But as soon as it came out clever coders everywhere started making games for it anyway and the games industry in the UK exploded.


Speccy players dominated every playground in the country and, given that games could be easily duplicated with any two cassette deck hi-fi system, piracy was insanely rife. Kids would copy their games for each other until eventually everyone had everything. What a time to be alive. Speccy games still sold exceptionally well (and unlike now you could kind of buy games everywhere) despite the rampant copying scene, and the Speccy enjoyed an active lifespan for the best part of ten years before eventually giving way to the 16-bit era.

These days we’re not happy unless we’re seeing an entire universe rendered in super-silky 1080p at sixty frames per second while an orchestral soundtrack plays in the background. It wasn’t always like that though. Back in the ’80s, developers were trying to squeeze out every last bit of processing power or discover new tricks for dealing with the Speccy’s limited graphics processing abilities and we, as gamers, loved it. Every new idea was a revolution. The first time we heard speech coming from a game was like getting a slap in the face directly from Jesus. Nowadays we get pissy if Nolan North is doing the voice acting, back then if we heard ‘Letsh go Mishter Driverrr’ sampled at a bit rate so low you’d think it was recorded on an abacus we weren’t just happy, we were astonished.

begginersguidezx3Of course, retro is big business now and six or seven generations have passed since the Speccy’s heyday but there is a reason why the Speccy remains one of the most-loved games systems in this country. Unlike other systems that were improved upon or replaced by better versions, the Speccy’s unique style was updated. There were updated Spectrums that added more memory and better soundchips (and keyboards) but these still played the same games. The failed Sam Coupe system tried to do something else with the Speccy’s presentation but that died a peasant’s death immediately.

Really, once the Speccy died, that was it. The iconic look that came from the limited fifteen colour palette and low screen resolution couldn’t continue and once the 16-bit era arrived, people no longer played action games on a keyboard (unless it was paired with a mouse). This makes the Speccy unique in that its games serve almost as a time capsule. The games themselves have been lovingly archived over at World of Spectrum, a mindbogglingly complete resource for all things Speccy, and if you were unlucky enough to be born too late to have grown up with the Speccy and want to sample its unique charms, then you’ll want to get emulating


There are plenty of emulators out there for the Spectrum. I’d avoid the ones for phones and tablets as using touch screen controls is even worse than using the original rubber keys. Your best bet is a good PC-based emulator. There are plenty of them but I tend to favour ZX Spin. Just install it, grab a few ROMs from World of Spectrum (this is legal as they don’t host any games that have had their distribution denied) and start playing. Speccy ROMS come as .sna, .z80 and .tap files and these all work just fine. These games are controlled using the keyboard and many have an option to redefine your controls. A typical setup would be Q for up, A for down, O for left, P for right and Space to fire.  I generally go with QAKLJ instead as my first Speccy’s keyboard kept dying in all the wrong places.

With thousands upon thousands of games out there, there really is something for everyone, but we’ll be looking at some of the Speccy’s most iconic titles. The ones that moved things forward, the ones that confounded expectations and the ones that changed gaming forever. Forget all that Mario nonsense, this is the real history of gaming right here.

begginersguidezx5Manic Miner
This 1983 platformer was created by an insane hippy called Matthew Smith. Featuring just twenty single-screen levels, you wouldn’t expect it to offer much longevity but Manic Miner was rock solid. Many fans have never completed it thanks to it’s fiendish design and reliance on pixel-perfect platforming. It is incredibly easy to get started with. Press Enter to start and then the controls are just Q to move left, W to move right and space to jump. You’ll get the hang of it very quickly. Just expect to suffer your first peasant’s death pretty soon after.

Although the scope of the game was hugely increased for its spiritual sequel, Jet Set Willy, it is Manic Miner that makes this list. The tight controls, iconic graphics and smooth gameplay are not to be understated (it also exists in under 16k of memory) but it’s just the fact that this game has zero fat on it. It’s possibly the most elegant platforming game ever made and, thanks to its unique Englishness, one of the most bizarre too.

Manic Miner download

begginersguidezx6Ant Attack
If you think that survival horror starts and ends with Resident Evil or Alone in the Dark, then you don’t know shit about shit. Saying that, this probably isn’t the first example either. That bullshit ZX81 maze game with the dinosaur probably is. Anyway, Ant Attack (or 3D Ant Attack as it was also known) is the first one that I gave any sort of toss about. The game’s isometric 3D graphics were stunning at the time and the fact that you could view the play area from four different directions was technically ground-breaking. But it was the HORROR ACTION that kept you coming back.

You were charged with rescuing a member of the opposite sex (you got to pick your gender, which again was somewhat ground-breaking at the time) from somewhere within the walled city of Antescher. As soon as you set foot in the place, giant ants come steaming towards you. You can avoid them by staying off the ground but you’ll need to leave safety if you want to rescue your partner.

The tension of Ant Attack is real and the atmosphere bleak and oppressive. Those ants create panic. As does the control scheme that relies on over a dozen seperate keys and some sketchy rotational tank-style controls. Just like Resident Evil. Hmmm!

Ant Attack download

Skool Daze
Speaking of mad controls, Skool Daze has plenty of them. Playing as Eric, a schoolboy, you get to walk, run, jump, punch and catapult your way around school. While there is a linear solution to the game that involves displacing shields, answering history questions and attending classes, you could just do your own thing as well. Making your school, which felt large but is really just stretched across three screens, feel like one of the earliest sandboxes in gaming.


The colourful graphics and interactive backgrounds (you can write swears on the blackboards) really make Skool Daze stand out. The sequel, Back to Skool, added an extra girls’ school and even more characters but the original remains most people’s favourite. It was so clever, it even allowed you to rename the teachers and pupils so you could pretend it was your school and that you were punching some prick from your maths class. Catharsis!

Skool Daze download

It may look pretty cartoony but this brawler is an exceptionally violent game for its time. Set across just five stages, the game saw you fighting off members of a gang that has taken your girl hostage. Unlike most of the fighting games of that era, Renegade had quite an interesting moveset. Instead of the usual karate-based moves, this was all about the gritty no-holds-barred rules of the street. That meant you could punch a guy in the face, stun him, knee him in the nuts and then finish him off on the ground. Or you could fling him off of a train platform. All the moves came with some nice, crunch sound effects too.

However, it was the fact that Renegade was a coin-op conversion that made it interesting. You see, back then if a game was popular in the arcades, publishers would try to put out a home version. These were often bollocks but Renegade was excellent and even more fun than the arcade original.

Renegade download

begginersguidezx9The Great Escape
It’s ironic, really. I don’t like any of the more popular isometric 3D games (the Speccy was inundated with them after a game called Knight Lore arrived and redefined the genre) but the reason why you need to check this one out (along with the aforementioned Ant Attack) is that it’s just a bit unlike anything you’ve ever played. Set in a World War 2 camp, The Great Escape is all about routine. You can follow the other prisoners to roll call, meals or exercise periods (indeed if you take your hands off the controls, your guy will automatically fall into the camp’s routine) or you can go rogue, exploring the camp and stealing supplies.

Sneaking out of your bunk at night, digging under the camp, infiltrating the guards’ quarters. It was all very tense. Especially when you saw the guards, or worse, the Commandant. If you were captured, you’d lose any items you were carrying. If that happened too often, your morale would drop and you’d lose all control of your escapee, dooming him to life in the camp.  You don’t get that kind of tension these days, kids.

The Great Escape download

This fun little strategy game has such a rare combination of playability and depth, that people still play it now. Usually strategy games were covered in specialist sections of the games magazines of the day and thus ignored by those of us who were nerds but not absolute fucking nerds. All the tedium, rules and overblown stories were gone. Instead all you had was between two and eight wizards on a blackened field. Any number of these could be human or AI controlled and once you set up a game, all you had to do was destroy the other wizards.


This was all done with spells. Each wizard was randomly assigned spells that had a chance of working or failing. Maybe you’d start a match with the ability to summon a motley crew of giant rats and harpies which would hardly ever fail to cast but equally weren’t likely to win many battles. Or maybe you’d get a dragon or a vampire. These would usually fail but if you did manage to get one onto the battlefield, it’d quite happily fuck up everything in sight. The true genius of this game is in its simplicity. Sure, there are plenty of spells and no two matches are ever the same but it’s so easy to get into and will last you a lifetime.

Chaos download

The Pope has a habit of doling out sainthoods to his dead pals for saying that, in life, they performed legitimate miracles such as healing the terminally ill using prayer and bollocks like that. Well, if that bullshit qualifies then Bob Pape’s insanely ambitious port of R-Type, a legit arcade powerhouse of a game, should have him elected as the next Jesus. Cramming the world’s most graphically advanced coin-op into a measly 48k of memory wasn’t possible but he managed it and in full colour too. Admittedly, you did have to load in each level seperately but that was a small price to pay and while the game’s music had to go, none of the gameplay was sacrificed in this ludicrously successful conversion.

R-Type has been denied for distribution by Activision (because they are Activision) but you can watch the magic in action here.

With thousands upon thousands of games available, this really is just a small selection of what the Spectrum was capable of, but if you want your gaming education to be a little more classical and a little less ‘hey who remembers Manhunt?’ then these games are a good place to start. These days the Spectrum lives on thanks to the Sinclair Vega (which emulates the games on modern TVs) and a recreated ZX Spectrum keyboard (that doesn’t actually have any software and instead links in with an iOS app like any other bluetooth keyboard) proving that the love of a million Spec-chums is never going to die anytime soon.

Last five articles by Richie



  1. Ste Ste says:

    Man I loved my Speccy, the rubber keyed fuck. I remember playing Renegade and R-Type and loving them both. I also have fond memories of Double Dragon, another beat em type game which wasn’t as violent as Renegade, but still a lot of fun. I also remember owning Batman and Horrace Goes Skiing, both of which I remember being hard as fuck.

  2. Rook says:

    I didn’t onwn one but my mate did and the one game that always come to mind whenever someone mentions ZX Spectrum is Bruce Lee. Loved that game.

  3. Lorna Lorna says:

    Really enjoyed this. Loved my Speccys, and still have very fond memories of my ZX Spectrum +2. Great machine and some top games, although hard as fucking diamonds. Skool Daze was top stuff, and so was Chuckie Egg. Also loved Jack the Nipper, Cyclone, Uridium, Feud, and so many more. Happy days. Very happy days.

    Also, my Dad had a Sam Coupe. Lovely little machine but went nowhere, sadly. I haven’t run any emulators for some time now, but I used to use something called Spectaculator, which seemed to be pretty decent. Heard WOS site was having some issues. Some sort of clash between admin and the users?

Leave a Comment