Sinclair ZX Spectrum: A Visual Compendium

Although it's been bubbling for some time, 2015 could be seen as a renaissance year for the ZX Spectrum.

Book Review by Darren Carle | 15 Dec 2015
Book title: Sinclair ZX Spectrum: A Visual Compendium
Author: Various (Bitmap Books)

With some high quality emulators currently on the market, the timing of this Visual Compendium– in salute to the grandaddy of British home computing – is fairly tidy.

As the subtitle suggests, this sturdy 300-page tome celebrates the distinctive graphical style of the ZX series with its infamous colour clash and all. It’s a quality collection; flip open the dust jacket and you’ll find the inner sleeve lined with scrolls of BASIC code, a lovely touch and a veritable nostalgia trip for anyone who once owned the little rubber-keyed box of tricks.

It’s presented in full colour too, with well over 100 key games laid out in two-page segments, similar to the style of Retro Gamer magazine. The likes of the seminal Manic Miner comes with an enlightening snippet from developer Matthew Smith himself, recounting that he had to program mainly at night as flipping the kettle on would inevitably crash his TRS-80 development machine.

Such stories are studded throughout the book and though they are all fairly bite-sized, there’s plenty of them, making the investment feel worthy. There’s something delightful about randomly opening a page and admiring the various game presentations. From blown-up screen shots to fully-realised map-outs, there’s rarely a dull moment throughout.

Woven throughout the mainstay of the games themselves are meatier segments covering developer interviews and company profiles – again, nothing too heavy or in-depth but usually enough to give you some idea about the obstacles such developers faced and the victories they secured in a world measured in kilobytes.

It’s not all nostalgia though. An addendum on the Russian homebrew scene shows that in some quarters there are still people pushing the ZX Spectrum to its limits, and judging by the accompanying screenshots, with quite amazing results. There’s clearly still life in this old dog.

What A Visual Compendium perhaps does best though, is remind us of true pixel art. There’s no shortage of modern games that utilise the Spectrum’s distinctive blocky art style; Fez, TowerFall and Super Time Force to name only a few. However, in the book’s foreword, graphic artist Ste Pickford reminds us that this deliberate aping, for style rather than necessity, produces a nostalgia for something that didn’t really exist.

By contrast, this collection presents things warts and all, and is all the more beautiful for it. Flip to a page of loading screens, each presented no bigger than a large postage stamp, and it’d take a hard heart not to see an innate specialness to their style. It may have been backed through Kickstarter by hardcore aficionados, but anyone who fondly remembers the garish but glorious hues of the ZX Spectrum will find plenty to love here. 

Out now, published by Bitmap Books, RRP £27.99