Sir Clive Sinclair: The Man Who Shaped British Gaming

Yesterday, it came up on my newsfeed that Sir Clive Sinclair had died aged 81. The news spread over the various gaming groups that I’m a part of pretty damn fast. I went to sleep last night with no strong feelings about his passing. Perhaps that sounds a little callous on my part? I mean, yeah, Sinclair dying is a massive blow to the gaming world. Yet to me, last night, it really didn’t hit me. This morning? It’s a very different story.

Last night, I thought I should write something about Clive Sinclair’s death, even if I didn’t really want to. Today, there’s a massive desire to write something after sleeping on the news and reflecting on all he and his ZX Spectrum did for gaming. Before I get to that though, I need to explain why my initial feelings yesterday over Sinclair’s death were ‘lax’, for want of a better word…

Growing up, I didn’t have a ZX Spectrum. We (as a family) had a Commodore 64 and before the whole Sega vs Nintendo war, there was Commodore 64 vs ZX Spectrum… with the Amstrad CPC 464 in there somewhere. Still, there was massive rivalry between the American import and the very British made microcomputers back then. It was our generation’s The Beatles vs The Rolling Stones. Or perhaps more apt, The Monkees vs The Beatles, and you had to be on one side or the other. I was very firmly on the side of the beige breadbin, that was the C64 over the rubber-keyed wafer that was the Speccy.

I was very fortunate as a kid because I had friends who owned one of the other machines. So while I had a C64, I still got to play on pretty much every other machine back then. One of our neighbours had a Speccy and I got to play plenty of games on it. Sometimes, we would even swap computers for a weekend or longer. So I really got to grow up with the best of everything back then. While I was very much in the Commodore 64 camp when it came to the microcomputer wars of the early eighties, I never disliked the ZX Spectrum. Still, it was Jack Tramiel’s American import that captured my heart as a kid and not Clive Sinclair’s very British computer. I think that was why my initial reaction to Clive Sinclair’s death wasn’t all that big, because the ZX Spectrum was more of a background thing for me and not my main computer as a child.

But, as I said, after sleeping on the news and thinking back to the ‘good old days’, Sinclair’s Speccy was a revelation. I wrote a rather in-depth book on the British gaming industry and my absolute favourite era of gaming ever was the early to mid-eighties, bedroom coders age that shaped the entire British gaming industry. When I look back on that era of gaming, it really was the ZX Spectrum that paved the way for the gaming pioneers of the day. That’s what this article is going to be looking at, the games and names that were launched on the ZX Spectrum, the computer that Clive Sinclair brought to the masses and pretty much created the British gaming industry.


Just where do you start with the games and names from the Speccy years? I think I’ll begin with the fella that became a mascot (of sorts) for the computer itself. Horace made his debut in Hungry Horace, which was nothing more than a Pac-Man clone. Still, the character went on to star in several other games and he became the unofficial mascot of the ZX Spectrum. 1983’s Horace Goes Skiing was perhaps the most popular and best-remembered game in Horace’s career, it was the one game that every Speccy owner had… even if it wasn’t very British, it still defined British gaming.

Jet Pac was the game that launched one of the most popular gaming companies ever. A very simple, single-screen shooter with a wonderful arcade-feel. Jet Pac was the first Speccy game that the Stamper brothers (Chris and Tim) released under their new company, Ultimate Play The Game in 1983. Ultimate made some corking Speccy games back then and Jet Pac was one of them. Of course, Ultimate also made Knight Lore in 1984. For me, Knight Lore is one of the most important British video games ever made, right behind Elite (originally on the BBC Micro, but ported to the Speccy) That isometric game engine that Ultimate used for Knight Lore was revolutionary at the time. In fact, there’s a story that Ultimate Play The Game delayed the release of Knight Lore as it was so advanced that it made other games (including some of their own) look dated by comparison. I could sit here and namecheck other Ultimate games on the Speccy, but I have others to cover. Still, when the Stamper brothers became a bit jaded with their company, they created a new studio called Rare… and well, you all know how that turned out.

I don’t think you’re legally allowed to talk about the ZX Spectrum and not bring up Matt Smith’s Manic Miner. This was another one of those games that shaped and even changed the whole British gaming landscape. I’m not going to harp on about the genius that was Matt Smith as a coder (he was an utter genius though), but Manic Miner was and still is one of the most fondly remembered Speccy titles. A single-screen platformer famed for its Pythonesque humour and rather tricky-dicky difficulty. It would go on to spawn sequels with the likes of Jet Set Willy, another Speccy classic. Matt Smith became one of the first bedroom coding superstars thanks to his games and Clive Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum.

The breaker of many a joystick in 1984 was Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. Really, nothing more than a clone of the arcade hit, Track & Field from Konami. This was released when Daley Thompson became a British sporting hero thanks to his success at the 1984 Olympic Games. It was one of the first celebrity-endorsed video games too. A lot of fun and frustration was to be had with Daley Thompson’s Decathlon and it was a stone-cold Speccy classic. 

Not just a great British developed ZX Spectrum game but a damn amazing game in its own right. Skool Daze from Microsphere was a very early example of an open-world title. The freedom the game games you was amazing at the time, there was a plot to follow, but you didn’t have to. As a C64 owner, this was the one game that made me envious that I didn’t have a ZX Spectrum. I know a Commodore 64 port came later… but it just wasn’t the same. The C64 version felt clunkier and slower. Skool Daze, and its sequel, Back to Skool were defining games for the Speccy and true British gaming classics. 

I think I’ll finish with an egg. Dizzy was the first game in the very popular Dizzy franchise. Codemasters were the publisher, and they’re still going today too… now owned by the evil devil spawn that is EA. Anyway, Dizzy wasn’t a Speccy exclusive as it was ported to pretty much every microcomputer back then. But the first time I played it was on the ZX spectrum. There have been a tonne of Dizzy games released since the first title in 1987 too. I mean, Wonderful Dizzy was released in 2020. There have been numerous sequels, fan-games and remakes of the Dizzy games over the last thirty-odd years. But that first title, the original Dizzy created by the Oliver Twins is where it all started and the ZX Spectrum original is a game that many fans still praise today.


Well, that’s about it. Yeah I know I’m missing some absolute Speccy classics, but I do have to end this article sometime. Still, looking back over the years, the games I have played and just how massively important some of these titles were to the British gaming industry. You really do have to pause, say ‘thank you’ and show some deep respect to Sir Clive Sinclair and his ZX Spectrum…

 

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