I'm fortunate in being able to remember back to when I was very young. Because a night in particular stands out in memory. It was a cold November evening that my two elder brothers and I sat looking out of the lounge window with our breath steaming up the cold glass. Mum had told us that Dad would be home late, and he was bringing home a surprise.
The presence of brake and reverse lights in the driveway sent us into an excited frenzy, and we were only prevented from rushing Dad at the door by the expert herding of our mum. Into the lounge he brought two bags. Out of the bags came the Sinclair Spectrum 128k +3, and the Magnum Light Phaser for it. On that night in 1989, I was introduced to computer gaming for the first time, in the most British way possible.
Five of us crowded around the big CRT TV in the lounge, playing Bullseye, one of the games included with the light gun. (For the non-tea drinking, weather-complaining queuers, Bullseye was a popular darts-based game show with prizes and a cartoon bull as the mascot.)
That was just one of the games that came on the double-sided Amstrad 3” discs. There was Missile Ground Zero, Solar Invasion, Rookies, Robot Attack, and the arcade classic Operation Wolf. Some of those games I remember more than the others. But we had the future in our house, a home computer that you could program and play games on and do the household accounts and documents.
Well, that was the theory. Doing documents on it would be hard without a printer, likewise for the household accounts. Playing games, it did fine. Programming? Well...
Dad would sit cross legged in front of the machine, typing out a program from the instruction manual (a thick tome that I would later take to bed with me to read, along with the Commodore 64 manual), or one of the myriad Spectrum magazines on the market. With the code on the screen, he'd call whoever was nearby to come and watch as he ran it...
And then it didn't work. Cue swearing, growling and a cigarette before trying to go through the lines of BASIC to work out where the error was, pouring over the instructions or enlisting one of us to assist.
Sometimes it was a mistype. More often than not though, the problem lay within the code given itself. I had a bit more success with putting in codes, from getting a rough version of Pong running to the endlessly delightful swarm of colour blocks that I'd set up and then pretend it was a super computer cracking code while running about the lounge playing.
Like many of the technological things in our household, as we got older it found its way into my room. My brothers would get CRASH magazine to load the demo tapes off, and pick up cassettes from local computer shops to play games on. Like with the programs, some of the demos just would not work. There were games that did work however. And they were titles that I played over and over on the Speccy, even with the massive load times and screeching sounds of audio being converted to data.
The sound of a Spectrum loading from audio cassette is similar to the sound of dial up internet. It's shrill, abrasive, squealing and yet after a while of it you develop a fondness for it. The borders of the loading screen would flash and scroll with two-tone coloured lines as it ripped information from sound waves at a tremendously slow speed. And if there was a tape loading error? You got to do the whole thing over again!
Those who didn't adjust to the banshee within the tape deck quickly went mad.
Unlike the +2 series, the +3 didn't come with a tape deck built in, so Dad wired up some connections to a tape deck, showed us all how to hook it up to the computer and let us get on with it. I think the wires are still kicking about somewhere downstairs, with the labels on the jacks the same as they were twenty-four years ago.
There was the Spectrum port of Taito's The NewZealand Story, where you play Tiki the Kiwi in his quest to free his friends and his lover Phee Phee. The Spectrum version used a very basic colour palette for the game window: black on yellow. The reason for this was hardware limitations, they sacrificed colour for smoother play.
Another Taito game that I loved to play was the Spectrum port of Chase H.Q. I was never that good at it, but I still played it over and over. It was no Outrun, but I liked the aspect of taking down criminals in pitched car battles.
Last, but not least, was the Dizzy series of games, the first three titles by The Oliver Twins. Dizzy was an egg who went on adventures. I had the original trilogy, and was Dizzy mad for a while. My Mum made a Dizzy birthday cake for me, and I even decorated an egg like him for my school's Easter festival.
Things come to an end after a while though. The Speccy's disc drive failed after a while, and new computers and consoles came into the house. When we got Sega's Master System, our playing with it dropped off on it when we were introduced to the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog and Alex Kidd. And when we were given a Commodore 64 by a family friend, the Spectrum started to gather dust.
It went to a charity shop during a spring clean, and from there, who knows?
It was Sinclair in name only, the company having been bought out by Alan Sugar's Amstrad in 1986 (that whole story can be seen in the entertaining and interesting BBC drama 'Micro Men', and includes the tale of Chris Curry's Acorn Computers. Well worth a watch, it's essentially the British version of Pirates of Silicon Valley) and while I greatly preferred the Commodore 64 as a home computer, I still have fond memories of that black system with the chunky keys and big red lettering.
It started me off gaming, and I can only give it thanks for that.
The next time on Growing Up Gaming, I shall talk about Sega's 8-bit powerhouse, a console that I hold in fond regards, the Master System. The NES was a rarity in the UK, and this was the console that set me on the Mega Drive/Saturn/Dreamcast path and gave me my introduction to the Sonic the Hedgehog series.