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"Happy Computing on the ZX81...
Retro games in general
Member Name: davidbuttery
Retro games in general
Date: 09/07/02, updated on 09/07/02 (255 review reads)
Advantages: Intense nostalgia, Loads of programs around, The old Bingley Hall shows
Disadvantages: RAMpack wobble, 1K basic memory, Overshadowed by the Spectrum
...with 16K RAM Pack of cou-urse!" That was the strange sing-song message I heard when I listened to the ancient "WH Smith C15 Data Cassette" which had risen unbidden to the top of my various heaps of cardboard boxes and assorted junk I'd been too lazy to chuck out. The first reaction was deep embarrassment, as it usually is when you hear your recorded voice from when you were nine years old. But slowly I realised just what this was - it was a tape of programs I'd written for the first computer programming I ever did, on that monochrome marvel, the Sinclair ZX81. Not by any means great programs - mostly copied (inaccurately) from Sinclair Programs magazine and suchlike - but there was still a feeling of hacking away at jungle undergrowth and discovering an acient temple within.
To begin at the beginning. In 1981, Sinclair was already a famous name in the UK. There had been the successful programmable calculators whose prices had brought them within the reach of the ordinary person. There had been the MK14, an early board-based computer with a hex-entry keyboard - now very rare, and going for close on £1000 on eBay and the like. But most of all there was the ZX80, the first home computer to sell for under a hundred pounds. It had 1K of memory, it was slow, it had a horrible membrane "keyboard" which could only cope with capital letters,it couldn't do floating point arithmetic, the screen went blank whenever it performed a calculation (making writing action games extremely difficult!) and it overheated so violently that some owners rested a milk bottle fresh from the fridge on the case to keep things manageable. But it sold.
The release of the ZX81, a year later, showed that Clive Sinclair had been busy. The machine was (in my view, anyway) more attractive with its compact black and white case, bearing the legend "ZX81" in raised red lettering. It still had 1K of RAM and the membrane keyboard, and there
were still no lower case letters, but it had a floating-point ROM and the screen display could be kept on all the time, making games far more of a viable proposition. It didn't overheat (quite!) so much, and it was even cheaper - £80. Sinclair also made sure that peripherals were available from the start - there was the famous thermal printer (I never had one, to my great sadness), but the the 16K RAM pack was by some distance the most important.
The problem with the RAM pack was that the package did not include a vital accessory - Blu-tak. Anyone who's ever used a ZX81 will shudder at the memory of the phrase "RAM-pack wobble" - the phenomenon of the pack working loose from its connections seemingly by itself, and crashing the entire machine - usually to a blank screen, but occasionally to a collection of randomly scrolling patterns. Memotech's highly successful Memopaks didn't suffer from this quite so badly, but it was never wise to relax entirely.
Anyway, as this category is concerned with Games, games there shall be. There now follows... no, not a party political broadcast, but a meander through some of the games that brought my ZX81 days to life. And believe me, when a game takes seven minutes to load, and the slightest knock of the cassette recorder can wreck the whole operation, they have to be pretty involving to be worth the hassle!
This was an amazing programming achievement - you couldn't castle (a major bugbear) or take en passant, and pawns could only be promoted to queens, but that was about it. The ZX81's game wasn't all that strong, but there was always the 16K Sinclair Chess for them as had the inclination.
Even after I got my RAMpack, this was a game I played regularly. There weren't any real gimmicks - you hit a £ sign once to halve its value and turn it into a dollar sign (such was the exchange rate in
1982!), then again to remove it entirely. Only one level, but the machine code coding made it slick and enjoyable.
This was another of the ZX81's finest hours. The game was set at night in order to solve the "not many graphics" problem. You had the choice of making just the final approach to the airport, or of starting some miles away. There were also mountains and crosswinds to contend with, and you had a goodly number of instruments to keep under control. A "Not bad... a bit bumpy" report at the end was quite an achievement for me!
PERILOUS SWAMP /SORCERER'S ISLAND
This double-sided tape gets my vote as my Desert Island ZX81 Cassette. Perilous Swamp was a fairly straightforward setup in which you had to guide yourself across the swamp, rescue the princess, kill the "poor downtrodden monsters" and accumulate "ill-gotten gains". Very simple, but the humour in the text prompts kept things lively - I usually "survived the swamp with a mixture of 1/10 skill and 9/10 luck".
Sorcerer's Island was a much more ambitious game. This was an adventure set on the eponymous island, in which you had to explore your surroundings, defeating monsters to build up your "Monster Bane" rating, collecting treasure and making use of magic rings and potions. You needed quite a lot of power to defeat the Big Boss Balrog who guarded the exit from the island, and quite a lot of treasure to bribe the other major guardians. You just had to pray that you could avoid the dread phrase "The sword was magic and... pity it was poisoned"!
This one seems to have been forgotten over the years. That's a shame, as it was one of my favourites. In essence a straightforward sea trading game, you sailed around the coast of England buying and selling goods -
some of which were considered contraband, and could get you in serious trouble if caught by Customs. There was also the constant threat of pirate attack, and no seaman can ever ignore the ever-changing weather. Oh, and the bank was starting to make noises about your loan, too. Quite a hard game to win, this, but it held the interest.
3D MONSTER MAZE
I was perhaps the only ZX81er in the UK not to own this game at the time, but have played it many times since. It's basically a fairly straightforward 3D-effect labyrinth game, though that in itself was quite an achievement with the Sinclair's limited graphics capabilities (64 by 44 pixels, I think). What everyone remembers, though, is the terrifying sight of the huge Tyrannosaurus Rex bearing down on you - not a good time to hang around!
Okay, not a game, but it was my first experience of programming in a language other than BASIC. The ZX81's BASIC was reasonable, with string-slicing capabilities lacking from some far more expensive machines, and its manual was superbly clear, but Forth was still a revelation - I loved (and still do) its extensible syntax. A shame, then, that a horrible bug in the Sinclair implementation caused occasional total lockups at unexpected times.
Quicksilva were the name to watch in those halcyon days if you were after well-written arcade games, and my personal favourite was their version of Scramble. You flew through a twisting underground cavern, shooting aliens, bombing fuel dumps and trying not to crash. Like all the best arcade games, a simple idea done well.
This one isn't (yet) available anywhere outside my house. It's a variation on the old "press the key corresponding to the right area of the keyboard" idea, and is one of my favourites among a vast heap of ZX81 programs, games an
d serious, written by my late grandfather, Peter Davis. To give you an idea of his approach, other games include "Gadfly Gadoynging", "Dudu Splatting" and "Pongo Pinging"! I'm uploading the collection to a special section on my website (see links section at the end of the op) but it's slow going, and many of the better programs will not be up for many months yet.
Now of course, unless you're lucky enough still to have an original ZX81, you're going to need an emulator to play these games on. There are three I think are worth a look (on the PC, anyway - I don't know about other platforms):
Carlo Delhez's emulator is generally regarded as the best available. It's still officially in beta, so don't complain if you get the odd glitch, but the most recent version (11B) will do more or less anything asked of it (including ZX80 emulation!), and is probably the closest thing to the old brick you can achieve on a modern PC. It supports pretty much all the tricks (high-res graphics, proper SLOW & FAST modes, QWERTY, QWERTZ or AZERTY keyboards, tape interface etc). There is also the shareware XTender1, but this is only worth considering if you have a slow compute (486 or less).
As the name implies, this is written in Visual Basic. This one is up to v1.30, and while not quite so complete as XTender, it's still a perfectly useable emulator. One special feature is emulation of Memotech's MemoCalc spreadsheet ROM.
Online Timex/Sinclair TS1000 emulator
The Timex was the US version of the ZX81, with 2K RAM as standard. This emulator is unusual in that it runs directly from a (small!) window embedded within a web page (making it quite handy as a sort of super-calculator while browsing for those who know ZX BASIC!), and there is a small library of programs for it, including a M
andelbrot set generator!
The ZX81 archive (program files especially, but also adverts, emulators and technical info):
The Peter Davis ZX81 collection (very incomplete!):
Online TS1000 emulator:
comp.sys.sinclair (95% Spectrum, but ZX81 discussion always welcome)
ZX-Team (a still-active ZX81 user group!):