Written by veteran games journalist Dan Whitehead, Speccy Nation is devoted to the 80’s second best gaming machine, the ZX Spectrum (the best, of course, being the Commodore 64). It takes a good look at some of the games available for Sinclair’s computer and looks back at why they were so memorable.
The book takes a similar approach to many other retrogaming books. The author picks out a series of titles and does a mini review, highlighting what made them special and re-appraising them in the light of subsequent gaming developments. What sets Speccy Nation apart from similar titles is the way titles have been selected for inclusion.
Most titles of this nature simply cover the “best” games available for the system. This does mean that can end up all being rather samey – whilst there might be some mild differences the order in which titles are ranked, the same suspects pop up time and time again (Ant Attack, Knight Lore, 3D Deathchase etc.)
Whitehead takes a slightly different tack by splitting the book thematically. So, of course there is a section on the best Spectrum games, but other chapters concentrate on different criteria: the most ground-breaking or games that would never be made today, for example. This gives Whitehead the opportunity to select from a broader range of titles. Indeed, some of the games Whitehead highlights were not even that good, but make it into the book on the grounds that they had at least one new idea that had never been tried before. This gives the book a broader appeal sets it apart from other, similar titles.
Each mini review is generally informative and entertaining to read. Usually consisting of just a few hundred words, they are easy to digest and informative (even if you have never heard of the game in question). It also makes the book very readable. It’s all too easy to get to the end of one entry and then think “I’ll just read one more…” and then suddenly find you’ve read an extra 20 pages. The book itself is pretty short (124 pages in the print version), which also aids the readability.
The tone of the book is also quite varied. Some entries are quite serious and make valid points about the nature of games and gaming; some are just fond reminiscences of a bygone age when everything seemed simpler; still others show a rather pleasing (and slightly silly) sense of humour. There were a couple of times when I felt that gaming observations veered just a little too much towards pretentiousness, but thankfully this is pretty rare and so easily forgiven.
What’s less forgivable is the complete and utter lack of images. OK, so by today’s standards, Spectrum graphics in all their 8 hue, colour clashing glory weren’t exactly fantastic, but they are remembered fondly. And some of the graphics were genuine works of art when you consider the limitations the programmers were working with. To make the book purely text based is a really poor decision. I realise it would have added to the cost, but it would also have added a massive amount to the book A book like this needs pictures – after all an important element of gaming is that it is at least partly, a visual medium.
The author also has something of a Grand Theft Auto fixation (possibly only noticeable if you read the book in one go like I did). I lost count of the number of times a game was compared to Rockstar’s franchise, either because of its proto-open world gameplay (Where Time Stood Still) or its thematically violent content (Friday the 13th). It’s not a big issue, but the book should carry a little disclaimer that says “other open world games are available”.
Finally, Whitehead’s biggest sin is that he thinks the ZX Spectrum was better than the Commodore 64. He is, of course, wrong and so we can safely ignore him on this point at least.
Overall, Speccy Nation makes for an interesting read for anyone familiar with the 8 bit era. The lack of images is a serious omission, but at least the book tries to do something a little different when it comes to title selection.
Available in paperback for £3.99 or Kindle for £1.19, my advice would be to go with the Kindle version. It’s interesting to read once, but I can’t see myself ever going back to it.