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The History of Video Games #4: The Sinclair ZX Spectrum - Part Two

The graphical capabilities on the Speccy

By Iain BakerPublished 7 years ago 4 min read
Exolon, so many memories...

Last week we saw the rise of the ZX Spectrum, which coincided with the demise of the Atari 2600. We looked at the perils of cassette-based physical media, and how the speccy’s ‘open’ system allowed for the first modding scene, and the beginning of indie gaming.

Fellow Vocal author Sam Flintlock has already written a very good article on some of the Spectrum’s ‘must play’ games, check out the link here:

To avoid stepping on anyone’s toes, over the next few articles I will concentrate on gaming on the speccy in general.

This week we will look at the audio visual capabilities of the speccy.

The spectrum’s more sophisticated hardware allowed for significantly improved graphics over the Atari. Compare Super Breakout on the Atari 2600 to Arkanoid on the Spectrum to see the difference.

Video by James Barrett

Video by Zeusdaz - The Unemulated Retro Game Channel

Many games, especially some of the earlier ones, opted for a monochrome colour pallet, i.e. one colour and black. Clever use of simulated shading produced surprisingly detailed looking graphics.

Sometimes these limitations worked in a games favour.

Compare the videos of X-Out below. The different colour pallet used every two levels on the Spectrum version helps to give each section of the game a distinct ‘feel’.

Even though the Amiga version is graphically superior, every level looks much the same.

Compare how the last two levels of the spectrum version look compared to the same levels on the Amiga. Which has the more atmospheric ‘descent into hell’ vibe to it?

video by RZX Archive

Video by Amigamers T.V.Other earlier games opted for a colourful but simplistic ‘cartoony’ look, such as in Dizzy:

Video by World of Longplays

As you would expect, the best looking games came very late in the Spectrum’s life. These combined the clever shading of early monochrome games with the full colour pallet of the early cartoony ones. Dan Dare Three and Extreme - both created on the same game engine - are probably the finest examples of this.

Both videos from World of Longplays

However one problem plaguing many multi-colour spectrum games was Attribute clash, or 'colour clash' as it was more commonly known. This was due to limitations of the hardware, and is possibly the reason why many developers went down the monochrome route.

Colour clash did not affect all games equally; there was a distinct *ahem* spectrum to this. At the lower end of the spectrum it was hardly noticeable unless you were specifically looking for it. R-Type and Exolon were good examples of colour used well, with colour clash kept to a minimum.

Video by RZX Archive

Video by Zeusdaz - The Unemulated Retro Game Channel

However at the high end of the spectrum, sprites could appear transparent. Double Dragon suffered from this a great deal, as you can see in the video below.

Video by RZX ArchiveStill images did not suffer from colour clash as much as moving ones did. This led to ‘spectrum art’. Users would use the spectrum to create and share digital art. With the right skills and clever use of the technology, artists could create amazing images, pushing the spectrum’s visual capabilities to its limits.

Video by pomaser

Bedroom programmers were keen to push the graphical abilities of the spectrum as well. To this end many created graphical showcases called ‘demos.’ Although it would not be possible to implement these in a game, the results were outstanding. This ‘Demo scene’ is something we would see again in the 16-bit era.

By Carl AttrillSome games did feature digitised speech in limited amounts. Some of this was surprisingly clear, whilst some made you want to reach for the mute button.

Video by retroisland

The audio capabilities of the Spectrum were of course limited by today’s standards, but were far in advance of the Atari. Spectrum music had a very distinctive sound, which enthusiasts still find appealing today. It was sufficient to recreate pop music, although without the speech.

Video by ZX Video

Hey, it still sounds better than this ;-)

Video by shittyflute

That's it for this week. In the next article we will delve into what playing games on the speccy was like.

See you all then.

Photo credits

Main Image:


By Vlad Tru (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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About the Creator

Iain Baker

A 'pushing 40' life long gamer, reader, writer, film buff and amateur war historian. Loud and proud member of the 'The Oregon Trail Generation - the first gamer generation.'

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