SpeccyJam – and the everlasting appeal of the ZX Spectrum

Starting on Friday, the annual SpeccyJam challenges coders to create new games in the style of classic Spectrum titles. Why?

Attribute clash. If that two-word phrase means nothing to you, the rest of this article is probably going to be bewildering. But if some dim light bulb exploded in your head, dragging you back to the days of the early home computers, welcome old-timer. We are, of course, talking about the ZX Spectrum.

In the early eighties, the 48k Spectrum – or Speccy as it was known to fans and detractors alike – was the rubber-keyed prince of the computing world. Designed by Clive Sinclair and his team at Sinclair Research, and launched in 1982 (originally with a paltry 16k of memory), this comparatively cheap, cheerful machine brought digital technology to the masses, heralding a glorious golden age of game development. This was the era of Chuckie Egg, Horace Goes Skiing and Jet Set Willy; the era of whizz kids and bedroom coders. The era of fun and weirdness.

Sinclair stopped making Spectrums in 1992, but their legacy lives on. Misty-eyed game makers still hark back to those days of ridiculously restrictive hardware specifications and – yes – attribute clash: the technical term for the way that the Speccy made animated graphics melt into each other like water colours in rain.

Last year, retro gaming blogger David Hughes launched SpeccyJam, a week-long competition in which programmers from all over the world were challenged to make new games based around the technical limitations of the Speccy hardware. Now it’s back, taking place from Friday until 5 September. “Developers can work alone or as part of a team, and can use any game engine or dev tools to create their game,” says Hughes. “It can be developed for any device or platform… it doesn’t matter as long as it looks, feels and plays like a Spectrum game.”

So what does that mean in practice? “The rules are that you must use only the 15 Spectrum colours (eight colours with an alternative shade for each, except black which is the same shade for both), and the Spectrum resolution – 256 x 192. It’s not essential to use colour clash, but we had a few tackling it last year just to make their game look more authentic - and they really did! I recommend you to play Henry Hedgehog and the Haunted House which was my personal favourite.”

This year, Hughes has also assembled an impressive judging panel of Spectrum luminaries. Jas Austin coded the Speccy version of Sega classic Altered Beast; Colin Jones was responsible for the anarchic Rock Star Ate My Hamster; and Clive Townsend created ninja adventure Saboteur. These guys helped establish the genres we all now take for granted – they formed the language of game design; its double-jumps, loot drops and boss battles.

Constraints and creativity

There’s more to this than nostalgia though. Game developers love a challenge; they love to test their creativity against technical restrictions, and modern programmers rarely come up against a system as restrictive and demanding as an 8bit computer. Game jams are all about raw, fast uncluttered design – you think fast and you code faster. Having to think in terms of fossilised architecture takes the whole thing up a notch.

“It would be quite easy for an independent game developer to dream up a character, draw it in Photoshop so that it looked exactly the way they wanted, and then have it animate around the screen collecting magic stars, give it some nice sound effects and some techno music, and make it really fun,” says Hughes. “However, if I was to say, you must do all of that but you only have 48k for everything, you can only use these eight colours that can only be displayed in a certain way at any one time, your sounds consist of a few clicks and beeps, and you must cram all of that in a resolution the size of a postage stamp. Oh, and it must be incredibly fun and engaging. Now that’s a challenge.”

Oh okay, who are we kidding, this is totally about nostalgia. It is about Miner Willy and Dizzy and whatever the hell Horace was. “For me, and millions of others, the ZX Spectrum was our gaming first love,” says Hughes. “I think the sights and the sounds of the Speccy are a direct portal to revisiting our childhood, a time of innocence, when people had less expectations and a lot more patience – they had to have patience just to load those cassettes”.

Games on cassettes. How will we ever explain that to our children? How will we ever explain waiting five minutes for the game to load while the tape player made a sound like two startled pigs shagging during an experimental krautrock concert? How will we explain attribute clash? How will we explaint Horace? A sort of pixelated smear on jagged legs? WTF?

We can’t explain it because the medium has moved on so far. The horizons have shifted. Indie games like Spelunky and Papers Please give us glimpses of the old ways, but like the coders themselves, our ability to work within restrictions has been eroded a little.

“The unique thing with Spectrum games, and I believe one of the main reasons that people are still interested and keep returning, is that you had to use your imagination as a peripheral cartridge add-on,” says Hughes. “You used your imagination to fill in the blackness of a background, and replace it with a dense jungle scene on something like Sabre Wulf. You had to imagine how the speech would sound as you listened to the clicks and the beeps of a teacher reprimanding you for jumping like a kangaroo on the classic Skool Daze. This was a part of the game experience. Now the scenes are there for you, on a plate.”

So SpeccyJam is happening this weekend. Join in, or wait until the games are available to play online from the official site. Load one up, it won’t take five minutes, it will probably work first time. The colours might even melt together, creating blocky collages in front of the pitch black backgrounds.


Keith Stuart

The GuardianTramp

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