Along with video recorders and microwaves, home computers were part of a new wave of domestic technology that arrived in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and lent the era a revolutionary, high-tech feel. Home computers were especially thrilling because their potential was unknown and their capabilities were continually being tested. The result was a procession of original ideas and programming innovations that made those years a time of wonder.
Even typing out a simple BASIC program from a book or magazine was extraordinary, because until then the art of putting words and images on a screen had been the preserve of an anointed few. In fact, most of the programming heroes of the 1980s started out this way: as untrained enthusiasts, curious to see what they could do with their box of tricks.
Like punk before it, computing was baffling to much of the older generation, giving it an offbeat, outsider vibe. The consequent lack of mainstream support meant the games industry that grew up around it had to be created from scratch by enthusiasts. The pioneering, do-it-yourself spirit of the fledgling software scene was palpable to everyone involved with it, from those who made the games to those who played them.
The Sinclair ZX Spectrum, as Britain's first proper, affordable home computer (i.e. it had colour, sound, a usable memory and cost less than a foreign holiday), was at the centre of this revolution. Unlike the rival Commodore 64, it had a certain homespun charm, largely thanks to Clive Sinclair’s mad professor image. Unlike Acorn’s BBC Micro, it was cheap, making it a machine of the people and winning it a large, loyal user base. There was simply nothing else like it, and to own a Spectrum was to be a part of an exciting new phenomenon.
By the mid-1980s, the novelty of home computers had worn off and they had become part of the furniture. They would remain popular, but the unique thrill of their early years had gone and would never be recaptured. By this stage, the Spectrum had been taken as far as it could go. All the best ideas had been thought of and all the best programming done. The limit of the Spectrum’s potential had been reached.
Take the shoot ‘em up, for example. There’s an obvious evolution between Quicksilva’s Space Intruders in 1982 (the Spectrum's first commercial release) and FTL’s Light Force in 1986, but thereafter little progress was made in terms of graphics, gameplay or imagination.
Take text adventures, too. Melbourne House practically bookended the genre's golden age with two titles from the same literary universe: The Hobbit in 1982 and Lord of the Rings in 1986. Even Level 9, the masters of the form, had resorted to tie-ins by the following year. Adventures eventually morphed into something more sophisticated, but never really on the Spectrum.
By the end of 1985, Ultimate, the most consistent producer of high-quality Spectrum games, was stuck in a creative rut, releasing title after title using its Filmation 3D technique. Its sale to US Gold in 1986 saw a leading light of 8-bit software snuffed out, and suggested that its founders, the Stamper brothers, believed the Spectrum’s best days had passed.
The occasional gem appeared in later years but the market was generally formulaic and derivative, dominated by a handful of major labels pumping out lacklustre licences and tedious tie-ins. 1987 saw an explosion in the number of budget titles (many from the execrable Codemasters), which would come to define the Spectrum's final chapter. Most were dismal efforts that degraded the market and insulted buyers. Others were re-releases of old classics, which spoke of a lack of effort and originality.
Budget software was a commercial inevitability - a way of keeping the Spectrum relevant at a time of growing pressure from the 16-bit market. In 1986, the Atari ST was launched in Britain, signalling the beginning of the end of 8-bit domination and putting the Spectrum on borrowed time. While it remained popular for years to come, its heyday was over.
In January 1986, Your Spectrum magazine was relaunched as Your Sinclair. It became known for its irreverent approach to gaming and established itself as arguably the best Spectrum-orientated magazine on the market (if not the best-selling). However, it was the first and only year that YS would be published without the regular appearance of a cover tape - a gimmick that was quickly adopted by rival publications and eventually reduced the magazines themselves to diminished vehicles for cassettes.
A few months before Your Sinclair’s launch, Graeme Kidd had taken over from Roger Kean as editor of market-leader Crash, and his very first issue included a merciless spoof of rival magazine Sinclair User. An injunction by publisher EMAP led to the withdrawal of undistributed copies and a published apology. This episode raised Crash’s profile and boosted its sales, but also typified the magazine's growing arrogance and flippancy, which became more pronounced as time went by. Crash later tried and failed to mimic Your Sinclair's jokey, self-referential style, by which stage it had lost what made it so special.
The decline of Crash was a tragedy because, more than any other magazine, it was the Spectrum user’s bible. By embracing software at a time when other publications were still sniffy about it, Crash recognised and fed the enthusiasm of gamers, and provided them with an important lifeline to the Spectrum-owning community. 1986 was the final year before its gradual deterioration, and the year before Your Sinclair started the dreaded cover tape trend.
Most significantly of all, 1986 was when Clive Sinclair sold out to Amstrad and left the industry. This, more than anything else, marked the end of an era. Without Sinclair, the Spectrum lost its figurehead and the epitome of its flawed, eccentric charm.
Amstrad promptly announced that the Spectrum would be repackaged as a purely games-playing machine, confirming that home computers were by then rarely used as anything else. The joy of programming, even at a rudimentary level, had been part of computing’s early appeal - indeed, it spawned the software industry that was instrumental to Sinclair’s success. Amstrad’s decision and the launch of its new micro at the end of 1986 officially called time on the Spectrum’s formative years - its golden years.