Monday, 22 June 2009

Exploring old skills and fun games

I've once again stumpled across a Sinclair ZX Spectrum Emulator. I have no clue as to how I got on to that, but now it's here. And I'm amazed by all I still know and remember of this magnificent machine and it's broad range of software, dating back around 27 years ago.

On you can find a fine collection of both software, documentation and emulators and much more. Most of the software is regarded as 'abandonware', which I think is not legally justified, but on the other hand - if I dig hard enough I can possibly find the original cassettes on the attic along with the machine itself. And they continue to amuse and amaze me. I think that's 'quality', to me at least.

The standard spectrum game is not in itself breathtaking. I mean, some of them were and I remember some of them actually being way ahead of (their) time. Today the graphics and especially sound is crude, simple and a bit strange.
But they pertain something else: gameplay, fun and originality.

This goes along with one of my theories of software development: that if you're forced to work under severe constraints, your work will become better. One of my fanciful ideas is to restrain developers from compiling more than once a day or just have one pc with the development tool per four developers. I've yet to try and pull that off in real life, but in my mind it would work and create better software faster. More on that on another blog entry.

The 'speccy', as we who've known it for all those years often call it, has it's own restrictions. Standard memory was 48 Kb RAM. That's 48 * 1024 bytes. No megabyte here.. All program, data, system variables and stuff should be fit within this size. And your mass storage was a tape recorder. Slow and painful. I used to buy tapes of 45 mins per side, because they were cheaper. Trying to find where I had stored a program of 4 mins time somewhere was painfully tedious.
And graphics... not that many pixels either. 32 characters across the screen, each representing 8 bytes. By 'stacking' them, the bits would make it out as pixels. So you had the enourmous amount of 32 * 8 pixels across screen. But - colors were restricted to the character's size.

Still software developers of the time made fantastic measures to overcome this. For instance, some games where held in the same colors, like black and cyan, to create a certain style or atmosphere. It worked (sometimes).
Some made their own character rendering, and accomplished 45 characters across. I myself created a machine code routine that could print 64 chars across screen - by making each character maximum 3 pixels wide (and the fourth would be the space between characters).

The game play reminds me of the Wii Sports Game. It's nothing graphically compared to other games, but it's the one that's still fun to play after some time. The game play is what makes people return to it.
And originality was in top. Back then everything was made for the first time. Take one of my favorites from then: Juggernaut (see picture of cassette inlay). Steering a large truck around a small city infested with roundabouts, road work and tricky turns to accomplish a days work of collection goods is still fun. Back then I didn't know how to drive. I do now, and I'm doing better, but it's still relentlessly hard.
Another favorite is Dark Empire, which graphically is so simple noone would give it a chance. It's probably one the games I've played for the longest time ever. It's a strategic war game and you have to discover the world first. At the beginning all is clouded. As your ships and armies move around you'll discover island (or continent) after island with new cities - and enemies, of course :-)

Graphically it sucks. The sound must be turned off or you'll go crazy (and you can do that on an emulator ;-) But the game is so fun.

There. I had to get it out of my chest :-) I will always keep a special place in my heart for the speccy, my long lost companion - and now again. I find that I've actually preferred these games to modern top games, with stunning graphics and orchestral sound. They just don't have the game play, that let's you spend the tiny bit of your own imagination and which keeps these games alive and interesting.

A need to mention the MESS team, who created the free emulator, that can emulate an astounding amount of personal computers back from then.

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