I saw a Facebook Group the other day called 'Remember when you had to blow in the cartridge to make the game work?'. This made me laugh as this was clearly a jab at the new wave of gamer 'who have it easy' with high definition graphics, top notch 5.1 surround, wireless controls and even the ability to save game progress. However the people who created this page are clearly not old enough to remember the first golden age of 'Zero graphics, Maximum Playability' home gaming when games came on cassette.....
I was about 7 or 8, when I discovered by brothers Sinclair Spectrum 48K. I remember being amazed by the fact that I could play some of my favourite Arcade games in my very own bedroom. This along with the ability to write your own programmes led to me spending many an hour in front of my 14" black and white TV with the rubber keyed 'Speccy'. More than once I slavishly spent hours entering reams of code from the pages of magazines such as Crash and Zapp only to be greeted by the legendary 'Syntax Error' message.
While a brand new game would retail for only about £9 or £10 me and my friends just didn't have the money to buy the big new releases. Therefore you would save up your pocket money so that you could buy a 60 minute TDK tape (90 if you were feeling flush) from your local John Menzies or Woolworths in order to cheekily copy some titles off your mates (remember the tape-to-tape high speed dubbing? Happy days!)
While getting some games on the cheap meant you didn't have to wait until your birthday or Christmas to play the latest movie tie-in (they were a lot better back in the late 80's early 90's! i.e. Robocop, Batman, Untouchables and The Great Escape - more on this particular title later) it never compared to the ritual of buying a new game and reading the instructions on your way home from school. Back then you could even pick up Hit Squad 'platinum'/budget titles from your local corner shop for as little as £2.99. I use to love going into the Newspaper shop once a week or so and scan through the games to see if anything new had arrived.
The Spectrum/C64 era represented the first golden period of gaming in my eyes. I love going on forums and seeing people whinge about all the MS/Sony 'Fanboyism' but to be honest, while it may not have been as savage or childish as it is now, the whole fanboy thing has always been there. Simply instead of Xbox or PS3 it was 48K, C64 or Amstrad 464 (i'm not even gonna mention the Atari ST or Amiga)
Of course not everything was rosy in the garden of Sinclair and like pretty much every gaming machine since had its short comings - Pretty much every game, new or copied, would fail to load at least once: The journey from ' Load "" ' through the sea of white noise and seizure inducing loading screens to actually playing the damn game was never plain sailing. If you managed to successfully find the correct frequency setting on your cassette deck there was always the possibility that someone closing a door somewhere in your house, would inadvertently cause the Speccy to crash because of the shoddy power pack. To round it all off you would be forced to play with Keys as the game in question does not support the Kempston Joystick Interface...ever played IK+ with keys?!? It isn't fun!
After much thought and consideration, and in no particular order, I have compiled my Top 5 All Time favourite Spectrum games.
Renegade (Technos Japan/Taito/1986)
Classic side scrolling beat 'um up (even if the scrolling was limited to a two screen wide area) in which your un-named hero had to rescue his girlfriend. It was definitely the pre-cursor to future classics such as Double Dragon (which was also made by Technos) and Final Fight. The moves were incredibly varied and easy to pull off and on top of this you could also brandish weapons. It seemed violent at the time (remember this pre-dated the FPS genre, as we know it today, and the controversy of Mortal Kombat by 6 years) and the 'ground and pound' element was fresh and exciting.
Dizzy (Oliver Twins/Codemasters/1986)
An awesome platform/adventure in which you play as the titular Dizzy as you search the fairy tale land of Kathmandu for the items required to defeat the evil wizard Zaks. I loved the puzzle/adventure element and the great characters and areas seemed genuinely magical (in hindsight the game was littered with real world and literary references). Also this was the closest thing to Super Mario Bros/Zelda you could get on the Speccy at the time. I could have chosen any of the first 3 games in the series (the other 2 being Treasure Island and Fantasy World), as they are all brilliant, but I thought i'd go with the original. I heard a rumour a few years back that they were thinking of making a new console version. I can only dream...However if you do fancy reminiscing then why don't you head over to the Codemasters website where you can download the whole of Treasure Island Dizzy (please note however that this is the C64 version).
Daley Thompson's Decathalon (Ocean/Ocean/1984)
This early Spectrum legend captured the essence of Track and Field and had everything that made it so special in arcades. Oh, and that music! Amazing. However, if you wanted to complete a whole event you had to turn the tape over and load up Day 2 (110 hurdles, Pole vault, Discus, Javelin, 1500 metres). Once that was completed and hopefully a Gold Medal in the bag, you more than likely wanted to do it all over again and therefore it time to turn that tape over again(!)... I will never complain about modern load times again.
R-Type (Iren/Electric Dreams/1987)
The player controlled a space fighter named "Arrowhead" to defend humanity against a mysterious but powerful alien life-form known as "Bydo". After playing the likes of Nemesis, Xevious, Asteroids etc this was a revelation. It was insanely hard and utterly chaotic and to this day I have never completed it! The detachable pod shield, the 'force', was brilliant and really added an extra dimension to what was already becoming a pretty stale genre. I have since downloaded the original for my PSP and can confirm that it hasn't become easier over the years! The effects of R-Type can still be felt and games like the recently released Soldner-X 2 wouldn't exist without it. However graphics and speed aside it was a pretty faithful copy of the coin-op version.
The Great Escape (Denton Designs/Ocean/1986)
The player controls an unnamed prisoner of war who has been interned in a P.O.W. camp somewhere in northern Germany in 1942. The camp itself is a small castle surrounded on three sides by cliffs and the cold North Sea. This game was truly ahead of its time with its daily routines to follow (as not to alert the guards), its day/night cycle,'3D' graphics, 'Morale Flag' and multiple ways to escape...However you can only across the border if you are carrying the compass and papers when you escape. I only ever managed to properly escape once. I played this a few months back on an emulator and it still stands up today due to its great gameplay.
Other noteworthy games were...
Emlyn Hughes International Soccer (what other football game could you make the players, football, pitch and lines all the same colour?), Way of the Exploding Fist (Early Street Fighter prototype with a never ending amount of levels), Manic Miner (prequel to Jet Set Willy with insanely hard levels and the famous 'Boot' poke), Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future (An adventure game where you play the Eagle's most famous character which substituted the normal finite amount of lives with a countdown system. Everytime you ran out of energy you would be returned to your cell and you lost a few more hours. Once the timer reached zero the game was over - Um, wonder where Majora's Mask got that idea from?)
Sir Clive Sinclair...we salute you!