A Guide to ZX Spectrum Games 1982-1984 by Shaun McClure and Hilary Wells was one of the many retro gaming goodies Father Christmas brought me this year. As an active combatant in the Playground Wars of the 80s (on the side of the Mighty Commodore 64, of course), I tended not to pay much attention to the Spectrum gaming scene (unless, of course, there was a really rubbish game with which I could taunt my Spectrum owning friends). As such, I missed out on many decent Spectrum titles and was looking forward to reading this book to find out about them.
It has to be said that the book is a bit of a curate’s egg. There are some (many) great things about it… and then there were things that infuriated me. Perhaps the worst thing is that many of the things that infuriated me could easily have been fixed with just a little more care and attention.
There certainly can be no doubting the books ambition. The Spectrum was a long-lived machine and, thick though it is, this book covers just the first two years of its commercial life. It’s packed with mini reviews of over 200 titles and each game has a decent amount of space dedicated to it. Entries are typically 2-3 pages long and usually comprises of a screen shot, an overview of the game alongside the author’s opinion of how the game plays or what it looks or sounds like. It’s a shame that all the screenshots are monochrome, but given how many images there are, it’s entirely understandable that this decision was taken in order to keep the book affordable (a colour version is available, but costs twice).
One of the book’s real strengths is that it displays an impressive breadth of knowledge of the Spectrum scene. Most books of this nature tend to focus in on the usual suspects – the big name titles with which we are all familiar. And sure enough, many of those games appear. At the same time, however, so do more esoteric titles that won’t be as familiar to many readers – and these are given the same 2-3 page coverage. It’s good to see lesser-known games get their moment in the sun, and the authors should be applauded for the broad approach to selection that they have taken.
This does bring me onto Frustration Number One though: which is a long-standing complaint of mine with this type of book. How were the featured games book selected? It doesn’t appear to be an exhaustive list of every Spectrum game released in that year, nor the bestselling ones. Apart from adventure games (which are perhaps disproportionately represented, reflecting the self-confessed love of them from one of the authors), they don’t appear to be the author’s favourite games (since they freely admit to only playing some of them for the first time in order to write this book), so how was the final list arrived at? I don’t have any issue with the titles selected but it would have been nice to learn more about the thought process behind why this game was included, or that one excluded.
Alongside these mini reviews, there are also several developer interviews, which are fascinating to read. Moreover, like the games themselves, the developers themselves are not necessarily the ones you usually see interviewed and it’s good to hear some different voices from the Spectrum scene. McClure and Wells should be congratulated on producing a book that is both comfortable and familiar, yet offers something new.
The entries themselves are good to read. They are informative and often wryly amusing. It feels like the book is a collection of blog entries written by a talented amateur writer. And that is not in any way meant as a criticism: it means that the entries are easy to read and accessible and not too pretentious or academic. Whilst some of the entries might lack a little polish, the passion of the authors for their subject shines through and at the end of the day, that’s what I care about.
True, there was some repetition (I lost count of the number of times the author criticised a game for its graphics with “This is a Spectrum, not a ZX81”; and there were far too many repetitions of how the verb/noun parser of text adventures worked), but this wasn’t too annoying. It could also perhaps have done with some more careful proofreading (particularly someone who knew how to consistently and correctly deploy an apostrophe), but that’s probably just the pedant in me talking!
In fairness, some of this repetition is because it’s not really a book that’s meant to be read from cover to cover, but is better read a few entries at a time. Equally, there is genuine pleasure from taking a more serendipitous approach, just opening the book at a random page and reading whatever you find. Taking this approach makes the repetition far less noticeable (or at least more understandable, since the author doesn’t know what you have/haven’t read at any point which explains the need to describe what Scramble or Berzerk were again much more natural.)
Despite these various gripes, this was a book I enjoyed reading. I learned about many games I’d never played (indeed, often never heard of) and it’s a brave and impressive undertaking with far more to like than dislike. I’m assuming that there will be more volumes covering the Spectrum’s later years and, having read this, I’m certainly looking forward to the next instalment and will be buying it once it’s available.