Welcome back to Retro Revisits! We’re moving away from consoles this time around and back to the home computer scene. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum 128k +2, is for me, the computer that showed me the true potential of games. This is probably the time when I was old enough to start appreciating the content of a game, rather than just being captivated by moving colorful shapes on a TV screen.
Now despite my love of the ZX Spectrum, my memory has let me down in this instance as I can’t for the life of me remember what game I played first. I can, however, remember a feeling of supreme disappointment when I saw it. This is because I was a stereotypical little boy and I wanted a train set!
Looking back on all those years makes me realize how lucky I was to get the ZX Spectrum instead. The disappointment soon became a sense of wonder as I played through the titles like Punchy and Oh Mummy! and really felt like I was living the game rather than just playing it.
I played so many different games on this machine that I probably couldn’t talk about them all in my lifetime. I’ll try to cover some of my favorites, though. The computer maintained the same concept as my earlier Commodore VIC-20, in that it was essentially a keyboard/computer all in one. It also had the cassette deck for loading software, but the 128k +2 model had it built in to make it all one piece.
It also came with another feature as standard, which I wasn’t too happy with at the time, and that’s the very long load times with some of the games. Now, this was hell for a typical impatient kid like me. Games like Target: Renegade could take around fifteen minutes to load as it prepared all the content right there and then. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I actually understand now that it was necessary to get everything done, to begin with, so there wouldn’t be annoying breaks in the game later.
The other thing that bugged me at the time was one of the most annoying sounds in the world that would occur while the game was loading. I know now that it was probably there to tell me that everything was starting up as it should, but maybe a more audio-friendly sound could have been chosen rather than the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.
All the annoying aspects aside, though, the ZX Spectrum is probably my most fondly remembered game system.
Moving on to the games now, and we’ll begin with one the long loader I mentioned earlier. Target: Renegade is my favorite ZX Spectrum game ever, despite the fact that it took forever to start up. The game is a 2D side-view beat-em-up and the middle installment of the home system Renegade trilogy.
The first game in the series is quite good fun, but with a high difficulty level. The less said about the final entry into the series, the better (Time travel! Really!?!). The game controls are very simple to pick up, especially with a joystick. You have your eight movement directions and a single fire button. A directional movement and fire button combo will see you perform various attacks, such as flying kicks, punches, or even a knee to the nether regions. A collectible weapon also added some fun to the proceedings.
The story goes that you play a character known simply as ‘Renegade’ (very imaginative) and your goal is to get revenge on the local crime boss ‘Mr. Big’ for the murder of your brother. These days, the controls and varied attacks might be seen as quite limited to a newcomer, but at the time, it was a lot of choice in how to attack the baddies.
Target: Renegade also provided a form of backward compatibility if you only had access to the 48k version of the ZX Spectrum. In this case, you would be able to start the game more quickly, but each level would have to be loaded individually after completing the previous one.
The other cutback in 48k was the absence of music. The sound effects were passable but would start to grate after a while. All in all, it was the most fun I could have in a video game at the time and I played it through several times and never got bored.
It seems to me that video games were just as violent back when I was a child as they are now. I guess it wasn’t quite as noticeable due to the limited graphics and animations of the time.
Which brings me on to the next game I played rather a lot on the ZX Spectrum, Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior. This was a one-on-one, side view fighting game where you would pit your warrior (who looked suspiciously like a certain Austrian fellow in his Conan days) in a sword fight against the minions of an evil wizard.
This game had a wide range of moves that you could use in your quest to rescue the princess, including kicks, headbutts, and if you timed your button press just right, it would be possible to decapitate your opponent in a one-hit-kill scenario. A very appropriate game for a pre-teen to be playing, I must say.
Still, this was before the days of game certification, so you wouldn’t know for sure whether you should be playing a game until you got it home and fired it up. It was a very easy game to just pick up and play, and the relatively short load times provided an extra incentive if you couldn’t be bothered to wait to play.
I also just found out recently that there’s a sequel to this game that was released the year after. I’ll have to track it down at some point. By the way, bonus points for anyone who owned Barbarian and can tell me who the heavy-duty guy is on the European cover art for the game, and also what else he is famous for. No cheating and looking it up on Wikipedia!
Now last but certainly not least in my three most memorable ZX Spectrum games is Jet Set Willy II. This game is the third platformer in the Miner Willy series (after Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy) and sees our protagonist making his way around his rather large mansion and trying to tidy up all the objects after a big party.
Only after he’s done that will he be allowed to sleep. Essentially, it’s the same plot as the first Jet Set Willy, but with more rooms to visit. The game isn’t that straightforward, though, as you’re faced with getting past creatures that I am guessing were conjured by a very disturbed mind.
Also accompanying you on this journey are two pieces of beautiful classical music. The digitized music on the title screen is Ludwig van Beethoven‘s ‘Moonlight Sonata‘ (my favorite classical piece), and the in-game music is Edvard Grieg‘s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King.’ I had to ask around about that one. I’ve heard it so many times throughout the years but could never remember the name.
Now we’ve arrived at the end of the ZX Spectrum part of the Retro Revisits story and I have to say it is a wonderful machine even now. Such simple-looking games, but so much fun despite their dated appearance. Next time I’ll be heading into the realm of the Sega Master System and exploring the mysterious feature known as…the second controller button. What memories do you have of home computing? The Commodore series, the ZX Spectrum models or maybe even the Atari ST? Let us know in the comments below and on social media.
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