Best Spectrum games ever

Forget apps -- growing up in the 80s was all about platformers, puzzlers, text adventures and isometric 3D.

If like me you grew up in the UK in the 80s, cutting-edge computer gaming was all about the ZX Spectrum -- an 8-bit, rubber-keyed rectangle of unadulterated gaming joy. It boasted a handful of colours, blocky sprites and ran Sinclair Basic, a command line OS which encouraged you to come up with your own programs (mine never got more sophisticated than: '10 print "hello" 20 goto 10').

All you had to do was hook this techno slab up to a TV and cassette player and watch it siphon away your pocket money into a massive cassette collection of games. Apart from cash, or blank tapes and Speccy-owning mates, you also needed a truck-load of patience to plough into the Spectrum gaming cause, because each game took minutes to load, if it loaded at all.

The most hated phrase of my youth was not "go to your room", it was "R Tape Loading Error". But on the flip side, the most melodious sound was not music -- it was the exciting, electro scramble buurr-bip! buuurrr-bip! of a game in the midst of loading.

My brother and I must have played hundreds of different Spectrum games during the Speccy's glory years, until it was eventually replaced in our affections with an Atari ST. I suspect we whiled away the collective hours of loading time arguing about who would get to play first (him, invariably).

Looking back nearly 30 years on , it's impossible to whittle down all the classic gaming gems that defined my Spectrum-fuelled youth -- but here are, in no particular order, 10 of the highlights:

Jet Set Willy

Jet Set Willy

On the previous screen I was a man -- and now I'm a fly. Trippy.

Jet Set Willy was all about the weirdness. This platformer was set in a nightmarish mansion populated by murderous cutthroat razor blades, disembodied feet and zombie dumb waiters. My main memory -- apart from the weird atmosphere -- was that it was fiendishly difficult. But that was a common thread with almost all Speccy gaming. More often than not you'd be kicking the bucket in the first two seconds of a game. Did that make us throw the joystick down and mash the off key? Of course not.

Manic Miner

Jet Set Willy

More platforms and fiendishly difficult jumps lurked all over the place in Manic Miner.

On Manic Miner, timing your jump between platforms or to avoid an enemy was everything. Like many early games, it was cruelly unforgiving if you made your move a fraction of a second too soon or late. As a child I learnt several swear words just so I could adequately express my frustration at dying so frequently. I was rubbish at playing it, but I loved the challenge.

Rigel's Revenge

Rigel's Revenge

Games didn't have to have graphics to be atmopsheric -- a few choice words could get the heart beating.

The Spectrum was the perfect arena for the text adventure genre to thrive, where a few choice words of description and a blinking cursor could get your adrenaline glands pumping into overdrive. Never was this genre more effective and atmospheric than Rigel's Revenge -- a game in which you woke up in the dark to the sound of "groaning". I poured hours and hours into unlocking Rigel's puzzles -- only to be foiled most cruelly just as Part 2 was about to begin, by, you guessed it, R Tape Loading Error.

Bubble Bobble

Bubble Bobble

Platformers rarely get better than Bubble Bobble -- or more tongue-twistingly alliterative.

Classic arcade action also thrived on the Speccy and Bubble Bobble was this genre as its addictive best. You played Bub or Bob -- or two players could bobble up at the same time -- a pair of cutesy dragons who shot bubbles out of their maws. Baddies got bobbled in the bubbles and then all you had to do was pop them to get a bunch of bananas as a reward. Trust me, it made perfect sense at the time.

Spy Hunter

Spy Hunter

This game was all about pretending to be as cool as James Bond -- even as you crashed spectacularly into a hedge.

Another arcade conversion, Spy Hunter was an overhead driving game which somehow managed to make you relish living in an endless loop. The colour scheme of the countryside you accelerated through cycled endlessly through the seasons (green to orange to white and back to green) and I swear the game had no end. It did, however, have a very tricky part where you had to manoeuvre your spymobile down a very narrow lane and into the river -- at which point it transformed into a boat. Or more likely into a fireball, as 99 times out of 100 you crashed into the hedge.

Trapdoor

Trapdoor

It's hard to explain how much fun it was trying to get a crazy-pink bird to lay an egg so you could poach it for Him Upstairs. So I'll stop now.

Kids growing up in the 80s may not have had smart phones, but we did get Trapdoor -- a claymation animated TV series that starred Berk, a giant blue blobbish bumbling monster, and Boni, a sardonic talking skull. The eponymous portal referred to a trapdoor to the dungeons of their castle home, through which anything could emerge to trouble the castle's equilibrium. In the Spectrum game you got to play Berk, open and shut the trapdoor and be gently mocked by Boni. The game was a puzzler -- with your tasks being to cook or otherwise prepare various grisly food orders for 'Him Upstairs', including eyeball juice and a can of worms.

Treasure Island Dizzy

Treasure Island Dizzy

Cracking puzzles, gathering treasure, being a walking egg: all in a day's work for Dizzy.

The Dizzy series cut its teeth on the Spectrum but translated to the Atari ST and beyond. You played a walking egg who tumbled, somersaulted and otherwise sashayed his eggy way around a platform-based world, seeking treasure, solving puzzles and chatting to other members of the Yolkfolk. In the Treasure Island incarnation of the game, the action was set on a desert island. Other instalments included Fantasy World Dizzy and Magicland Dizzy. Gimme an 'F' for franchise.

Wizball

Wizball

Wizball is a clever idea executed exceptionally elegantly.

Wizball took one of the limitations of the Spectrum -- its restricted colour palette -- and gave it a creative twist. Each level started in monochrome, but as you, a green bouncing ball, successfully harvested droplets of different colours the world around you gradually coloured in. As a gaming concept it was absolute genius -- and the gameplay itself was hella fun too, with power ups helping you defy the laws of physics or gain a feline assistant to pwn baddies, and different mini games sandwiched between each full-fat level.

The Great Escape

The Great Escape

Oops! Back in solitary confinement after another breakout attempt goes awry.

Another game I dedicated hours and hours to exploring and attempting to break down was The Great Escape. You're a POW and your mission is to break out, but you can't just wander up to the fence and climb it -- you'll get thrown in solitary confinement. Digging tunnels was a big part of the game, but if you waited long enough one of the Red Cross parcels contained some wire cutters so you could always attempt a night time break out (which usually ended with you back in the slammer).

Head Over Heels

Head Over Heels

Head Over Heels: Isometric gaming at its cutest.

The spectrum couldn't handle rich 3D gaming, but what it could do well was the isometric perspective. This was basically a rotated viewpoint that allowed for layering within the scene but also meant there could be blind spots in individual rooms -- adding yet another layer of complexity to Speccy games. Isometric perspective was highly effective on Head Over Heels -- a game in which you played Head or Heels, a cat or dog, seeking your other half as you puzzled your way through a surreal series of rooms populated by robots, projectiles, spikes and suits of armour.

Did you grow up with a Speccy? What were your favourite games? Let us know in the comments or get all nostalgic over on our Facebook page.

Tags:
Gaming
About the author

Natasha Lomas is the Mobile Phones Editor for CNET UK, where she writes reviews, news and features. Previously she was Senior Reporter at Silicon.com, covering mobile technology in the business sphere. She's been covering tech online since 2005.

 

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