A new machine prepares to hit the market, and there is no guarantee of success. With higher resolution graphics, a more streamlined setup making creating software easier and sharper, crisper sound, the market braces itself for a new generation of technology that will either change the world, or sink without trace.
It’s strange in saying this, because I am talking about the first tentative steps of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum – but as you may have guessed, I could be talking about any generational leap in the last thirty years. The ZX Spectrum was a blueprint, the precursor by which the industry has followed. Keeping costs low, and software available, it sold an impressive for the time five million units – and all this from a British company.
But it was not an easy road, and by the end of its generational lifespan the challenge to keep costs low took its toll, and was inevitably bought by Sir Alan Sugar – he of the Amstrad – who proceeded to complicate the simplicity of the machine with ever increasing upgrades, when the market was not asking for it. Its popularity waned, and in 1990, it was all over.
There was much to celebrate about the ZX Spectrum, not least that it was the point where games began to take root deep inside the computer and technology industry. It was well designed, well liked and relatively inexpensive when compared to similar machines available. With clear instructions on how to do some programming inside it, the ZX Spectrum was trying to make computing, and computer games, cool – at a time when it was still seen as an expensive and decidedly nerdy pastime.
But its impact cannot be understated, not least because I came in to the market in 1986 when it was still more or less alive. It defined games of the era, and still does. Many of the familiar faces and names inside the industry and those who exist within the press all came to it via this device. This was genesis – the face of the future, and a future that was uncertain and took some time to come to fruition, but a future that has been realised nonetheless.
This week, we celebrate the ZX Spectrum. Not perfect, but the original. The template by which the industry has grown around. Its failings and troubled life should not dissuade us from remembering the good it did, and has continued to do for generations of technology cycles. A machine arguably ahead of its time, with ideas that were seen by some as common and opportunistic, even vulgar by many who thought games should be a byproduct, rather than the focus the ZX Spectrum liked to put them in.
The ZX Spectrum was the start of the home console. It wasn’t a console itself, but it paved the way for the concept, for others to focus on games and gaming. Whilst the British industry has fallen by the wayside, it is good to remember we played a small but important role in what we see and play today.
So happy birthday, ZX Spectrum. Thirty years young, and fondly remembered.
All past sins are forgiven.