I loved my Sinclair ZX Spectrum. For a time, I think it defined my existence. Coming home for the school holidays, I would switch on the machine almost as soon I’d stepped through the door. After endless weeks of longing for the piercing shrieks of a loading game, the comforting feel of the keyboard and the thrill of guiding little abstract collections of pixels around the screen, usually in search of an equally abstract but immensely time-consuming goal. We were pioneers, steering the ancestors of Sonic the Hedgehog (Monty Mole) and Mario (the pith-helmeted Sabreman) through subterranean tunnels or jungle clearings, beautifully rendered in two-dimensional environments, hewn from nothing more than a bundle of pixels, eight colours and the boundless imagination of bedroom-based games authors.
As I grew older, and computers assumed an increasingly damaging image for a self-conscious teenager, the fun rapidly wore off. Computing lost its appeal, and the screen that greeted me when I switched on the Spectrum – 1982 Sinclair Research Ltd – seemed irredeemably dated. The rigmarole of setting up and plugging in the various bits, disconnecting the aerial from the family television and monopolising the set wore thin for all concerned. The computer remained in its box for longer and longer periods, until one day it stayed there – a toy that had exhausted its lifespan.
The little, spongy-keyed, 8-bit Spectrum inspired ferocious loyalty amongst its owners. Although Clive Sinclair has long since been relegated to hawking curious items made of black ABS plastic from box ads in the back of the thinner-papered Sunday supplements, there are those for whom he’ll forever remain a kind of god. An acquaintance of mine once troubled to write, in a jagged approximation of a futuristic, robotic hand, ‘I love my commuter’ on her Spectrum’s packaging. This level of loyalty was not uncommon.
Old habits die hard. With the dawn of fast, powerful PCs, aficionados whose affection was surpassed only by their preternatural programming skills hacked and picked and rewrote the entire hardware for these early, iconic computers, ‘emulating’ the original instructions in software. An emulator is effectively a virtual version of another computer, allowing, for example, a Mac owner to run PC software, albeit at a slower pace.(1) As long as it has an electronic heart, almost anything can be emulated – from hand-held video games (2) and educational toys, to today’s high-powered games consoles (3) and the forgotten computers of yesterday and the day before.(4) After all, processors are merely lines of code set in silicon, and any programmer worth their salt should be able to extract, extrapolate and fill in the blanks, writing code that recreates the original circuits – a machine within a machine.
The emulation scene has grown to mammoth proportions, spawning websites and zines, forever hovering on the fringes of legality.(5) Many of the original wardrobe-sized arcade machines can now be replicated, down to the last pixel, on a home computer.(6) Emulation has become increasingly complex as computer students attempt to recreate every obscure machine ever made,(7) as well as tackle the Holy Grail consoles. Nintendo’s N64, Sega’s Dreamcast and Sony’s PlayStation are the ultimate challenge high-powered dedicated hardware, which require a speedy PC to imitate.
But for some, software emulation is second-best. For them, old electronics shouldn’t be imitated – especially when the real thing is out there, lurking in cupboards, garages and underneath beds. Diehards maintain that mere emulation is no substitute for the original silicon – especially when a console came with an unusual proprietary controller, such as the silky smooth trackball of Hypersports, Battlezone’s twin tank-control joysticks, or even Outrun’s well-weighted steering wheel, which you span in frustration as you slid off the digital track. However hard it tries, the PC, with its clacky keyboard and hypersensitive mouse, struggles in its attempt to recreate these tactile memories.
For a time, the hardcore retro gamer had to trawl boot sales and dubious secondhand shops where equipment was not tested, let alone guaranteed, to revisit the pleasures of their youth. Now, for British aficionados looking for like-minded souls, there is only one place to go. The Computer Exchange’s retro store (8) is one of the few high-street outlets dedicated to this new consumer museology. Anonymously located on Rathbone Place, just north of Oxford Street, the Computer Exchange, or CEX, is a cornucopia of forgotten delights. The seductive scent of heated polymers, glowing cathode rays and box-fresh packaging is overwhelmed by the acrid tang of a thousand teenage bedrooms imbedded in the scuffed plastic of the grubby cartridges, battered joysticks and console pads, their surface worn smooth through countless millions of thumb actions.
Crazed expressionist cabinets, sprayed silver and constructed with a knowing nod to cyber-punk chic, clash with the vintage equipment stored inside them. Frayed and tattered boxes bearing the names of some of the early, pioneering games systems; Vectrex, Tandy, the seminal Atari 2600 console, the Nintendo ‘Game and Watch’ handhelds which were the Pokémon cards of my childhood, are stacked up in colourful piles. Dotted around the cabinets, like a Britart installation, are ageing televisions, their screens alive with the brightly coloured, blocky graphics of yesteryear’s classics. As much a shrine to nostalgia as a functioning shop, CEX is often filled with wistful men recalling their youthful passions, a museum to another kind of childhood memory.
Many of us still have a Spectrum lurking in the back cupboard, fatally hobbled by a faulty power supply or a sticky ‘L’ key. That fateful day when the machine was switched off for the final time has long faded into the mists of memory. In truth, we didn’t miss it. Vague memories of parental urgings to sell, interpretable now as desperate attempts to regain massive outlays, were brushed off. Gradually the technology index fell, and several hundred pounds of state-of-the-art kit could be yours for a fiver. But now, at last, the value of this outmoded equipment is inching back up. As well as being able to prove your savvy financial intuition to your parents once and for all, there’s every chance that the Antiques Roadshow of ten years hence will feature mint-condition Pac Man cabinets and tabletop Space Invaders. A substantial part of retro gaming’s attraction is the fetishisation of old, outdated electronic equipment. From the quaint Atari consoles of the late 1970s, to the tactile terrors of the early 1980s – computers with keyboards so ineffectual that typing was all but impossible – retro gaming simultaneously evokes the Schadenfreude that inevitably accompanies amused admiration for the travails of decades-old electrical engi-neering, while demonstrating that nothing – nothing at all can ever slip completely from the gravitational pull of planet cool. Granted, many trends, fashions, technologies and products may be drifting out there on a pretty distant orbit, but you can never predict when the rogue asteroid of popular culture is going to upset the accepted order.
The retro gaming scene is no longer underground, confined solely to a few London backstreets and the denizens of the Internet. The ubiquity of computers in today’s work environment and the successful targeting of the young adult consumer by companies like Sony has encouraged major players such as Microsoft and Namco to re-work collections of classic games for todays hardware, in effect, emulating themselves. Style magazines sing the praises of the original machines, celebrating their freshly fashionable lines and kitsch artwork. The private ownership of a real video game machine has long superseded that other domestic refugee from the arcade, the pinball table, as the knowing talisman of choice for the successful creative professional. Michael Jackson’s mythical Neverland ranch his Californian sprawl with funfair and zoo (remember Bubbles?), came complete with a private video arcade, causing breathless conversations of ill-disguised envy at my school. Now, however, those same schoolboys are salaried young professionals with the money (and the space) to indulge their childhood fantasies.
And the Spectrum? What is the legacy of this seminal wafer of silicon? There’s a well-versed theory that the Spectrum’s ubiquity, as well as its many competitors, created a unique and fertile breeding ground for British programming talent, seeding the billion-dollar global gaming industry, as well as inspiring the dot.com revolutionaries to leap into the virtual void with little more than hand-scrawled business plans and a friendly venture capitalist. We’re the first generation that’s grown up, side by side, hand in hand with computers. Today, Internet fan sites for the Spectrum (9) almost equal are as numerous as those dubious homages to the more pneumatic actresses.
Perhaps we should not be too surprised at the inevitable resurrection of yesterdays technology. The architectural futurologist Aaron Betsky heralds retro-futurist design as a result of consumer fondness for yesterday’s utopias, forms from the better worlds we were once promised, yet somehow denied. (10) And so it is with retro gaming. That original machines still tempt us away from their digital descendants is a sign of computer cultures maturity, an ability to acknowledge and celebrate historical precedents. Childhood moves swiftly from memory to nostalgia, a backdrop of objects and deeds to grow fond of as their absence increases. But in this age of instant replay, the ability to revisit ones misspent youth is a journey too tempting to avoid. Computer culture – our culture – is old enough now to have a history, and as retro gamers we knowingly, and lovingly, buy back this historical detritus. The things we’d once forgotten come back to the present as the chosen symbols of our past.
(1) ‘One system is said to emulate another when it performs in exactly the same way, though perhaps not at the same speed. A typical example would be the emulation of one computer by [a program running on] another. You might use an emulation as a replacement for a system whereas you would use is simulation if you just wanted analyse it and make predictions about it.’ The Free On-Line Dictionary of Computing.
(2) Even Nintendo's seminal Game and Watch hasn't escaped. An extensive list of these candy-coloured delights can be found here.
(3) The leading emulator is Bleem!
(4) Many publishers even post their own, long-forgotten, games.
(5) The electronic auction site eBay has a wide selection of vintage computer equipment for sale.
(6) The Multi Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME), perhaps the best-known arcade emulator, can reproduce more than 300 classic arcade games. Programmed by the Italian Nicola Salmoria, MAME can be found here, along with links to other emulators and the so-called ROMS – digital versions of original arcade machine circuitry – that are needed to run the games.
(7) Oric aficionados are legion. Even the Affair 8800, programmed by a series of switches, can be recreated in all its 8K glory on your PC screen.
(8) The Computer Exchange’s website is here.
(9) See one of the many fan sites here.
(10) Aaron Betsky, Architecture Must Burn. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.