Sinclair ZX Spectrum: a visual compendium [Book review]

When it comes to coffee table books showcasing graphics from old 8 bit systems, Bitmap Books have form, They have already produced two excellent titles featuring the Commodore 64 and Amiga and now turn their attention to the ZX Spectrum.

Spectrum Visual Compendium - cover

Whilst the Spectrum was clearly wildly inferior to the Mighty Commodore, I have to grudgingly admit that the programmers of the time did an impressive job squeezing some stunning games and graphics out of such limited resources.

As with previous books in the series, this volume celebrates those graphics, giving an instant blast of nostalgia. Over 100 different Spectrum games are included, with at least one full page (more often a double spread) dedicated to showcasing some the best graphics the machine had to offer. Images are produced in full colour, with a single image usually forming the basis for the entire page.

The reproduction is superb. Despite blowing images up to far greater than their intended original size, there is no blurring and screenshots look crisp and sharp. A particular difficulty with this Spectrum volume was always going to be how to capture the bright colours of the original machine. Spectrum games are instantly recognisable by their vivid (some might say garish!) visuals and the ever-present risk of colour clash imposed by the machine’s graphical limitations. Happily, thanks to some technical gubbins (which I won’t even pretend to understand) this problem has been solved and the screenshots really capture the essence of Spectrum graphics, reproducing them brilliantly. It’s not quite the same as looking at the images on a TV screen, but it’s probably as close as you’re going to get on paper.

Spectrum Visual Compendium - Deathchase

3D Deathchase – probably my favourite Spectrum game ever.

 Each image is accompanied by a short piece of text (typically 100-200 words), Some of these are reflections on the game by the original programmers or artists, some are from other industry names reflecting on why that particular game was so important, a few are from ordinary gamers reminiscing about why they loved particular titles. Whilst these are interesting enough, many are too brief to give any real insights and a few are either downright uninformative or so tantalisingly brief that they leave you wanting so much more (this is particularly the case with the comments from the rarely interviewed Stamper Brothers).

The book does have a couple of longer textual pieces which contain either a series of short reminiscences from programmers on why the Spectrum was their favourite machine, or focus on particularly influential software companies. These are much more satisfying as they provide greater detail and more insight. In fairness, though, this is not meant to be a history of the Spectrum or its games, rather a celebration of its graphical capabilities. As such, it’s right and proper that text is minimised and the graphics are allowed to speak for themselves.

Where the text is more of an issue is that it is quite small and often superimposed on the brightly coloured graphics. Being such a crusty and ancient gamer who is increasingly reliant on glasses of all descriptions to see, I did find this difficult to read at times. In low light conditions, it could be hard to make out, whilst in bright conditions, the glare of the glossy paper could present problems. Still, this is more a sign that I’m getting on than the fault of the book itself!

Spectrum Visual Compendium - Ant Attack

Bitmap Books have produced three of these visual compendiums now. All have been excellent, but each one has been better than the last as the editors find their feet and learn what works and what doesn’t. Despite a couple of issues, this Spectrum edition is the best so far and (it goes against the grain to say this) even better than their Commodore Compendium companions. If you were being particularly churlish, you could argue that the series is starting to feel a little safe; sticking to a tried and tested formula. But hey! It works, so I don’t have an issue with that.

Like its predecessors, the Visual Compendium originated as a Kickstarter project, but is deservedly available to a wider audience and can be bought from Funstock Retro. At £27.99, it’s not the cheapest book you’ll ever buy, but if you appreciate the beauty of 8 bit artwork, it’s well worth adding to your collection.

 

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