From Showcase to Scriptorium: Two Encounters With ZX Spectrum Games

An interesting thing I’ve had to adjust to since moving to the UK to study games is the history of cassette-based computing and gaming that was almost totally absent from the North American scene of the 80s and 90s. The ZX Spectrum in particular had a huge influence on both commercial and homebrew game creators (and the line between the two was not always so clear!) and cast a shadow of influence I hadn’t even been aware of. Learning about these unfamiliar home computing systems and the colorful cultures and history around them has been exciting, but a few months into my studies I had yet to actually encounter or handle a ZX Spectrum.

My first experience pressing one of my fingers into those gummy rubber keys was at the Museum of London. I had heard of their new initiative to collect videogames that were developed in London or somehow featured the city as a prominent location, and knew that an initial selection of these games would be on display at the same time I’d be in the city for Now Play This, so of course, I decided to check it out.

The display mostly followed the paradigm of presenting games as historical objects. There they were, inside perspex cases to be admired for their interesting material qualities, while short paragraphs of text, screenshots from the games, and interviews with the developers provided context. It was an interesting, if a bit distanced look at London’s history of game development.

However, in the cafe area, there were several screens with Raspberry Pi-powered emulations of the games running in the original console’s housing. Some of these were action platforms, others text adventures. I did my best to make sense of any of them, but the placards explaining the games offered little in terms of what goals to pursue or even what vocabulary would work effectively with the text games. I tried to get in the spirit, thinking to myself, well, gaming was a different experience back then! There was no GameFAQs or tutorial level and you had to rely on experimentation most of the time! But even then, the kiosks felt neglected, and it was hard to tell when something was your own fault or the program or equipment was somehow glitching. It felt noisy, out in the open, somewhere it’d be more appropriate to spend 15 minutes scoffing a sandwich than taking a deep dive into the absurd world of Hampstead, so I gave up, mostly dissatisfied.

Weeks later, at Feral Vector in Hebden Bridge, I was given the task of freeing Willy. I’m of course talking about Jet Set Willy, a 1984 ZX Spectrum title developed by Matthew Smith. It’s a pretty basic jump, dodge, and collect-em-all type platformer with a veneer of Monty Python-esque humor. Despite some major bugs upon release, it was generally seen as a worthy successor to Manic Miner, the first game in the series, and topped UK gaming charts for a significant period of time.

At first glance to players of today, from the box art to the very specific humor, it’s quite weird and impenetrable. I entered Dr. Caligula’s Pirate Willy Workshop entirely unsure of what to expect. What I got was what I consider my first LARPing experience, a bootleg cassette tape, and an eye-melting hand-drawn grid of colors, letters, and numbers. By the end of the hour I was slightly overwhelmed, maybe a bit dizzy, but overwhelmingly proud. Above all, I felt I understood more about Jet Set Willy better than any traditional museum display could have conveyed. So what happened?

Jet Set Willy had one of the earliest forms of copy protection. Legitimate copies of the game came with a small card that had a grid with groups of four colors all over it. Before you were allowed to play the game, it would ask you to enter a specific coordinate on the grid, a series of four colors. By today’s standards, in a world of increasingly sophisticated and annoying DRM, it seems almost laughable. But the lack of digital photos, internet access or color copying made replicating the card a bigger hurdle than copying the cassette itself! The Pirate Willy workshop transported all of us back to that conundrum, circa 1984, where one of us in class was lucky enough to have an original copy of the game, and we only had our lunch period, a pile of blank cassettes, and an assortment of crayons and colored pencils to distribute the game, and the way of cracking its copy protection, to everyone.

Described as both cooperative coloring and an 80s copy protection scriptorium, we quickly strategized our approach to put one person in charge of reading off coordinates and groups of colors for everyone to copy while each person quickly passed off their card when they had to abandon the project for a few moments to rush to the tape deck and copy their own cassette. It was a maddening process that charged onward no matter how many times I felt a hair away from falling behind, but for the most part, it ended successfully. We finished the reading of the grid and copying the tapes within an hour, with 4 minutes to spare, and when tested, my own copy of the game worked. As I took to the keys of the ZX Spectrum again, entering the four colors to a cheer of victory when the game’s title appeared, and then quickly being crushed by malevolent household objects, I finally felt like I “got” ZX Spectrum games.

I don’t want to denigrate the work of the huge amateur and professional community making emulation more accessible and covering a broader variety of media and games all the time. Their work is vital, but I don’t think it’s the be-all-end-all. My experience at the Museum of London showed that even a well-considered emulation approach can fall flat in communicating the significant qualities and importance of these games without proper guidance and contextualization for players. Activities like the Pirate Willy Workshop aren’t a long-term conservation strategy for original games in a way that migrating their source code is. Making around 20 copies of an original tape in one go surely wears it down, and the bootleg covers and copy protection cards we made to accompany it were of varying quality. I submit only my own for judgement.

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However, this engagement with the material culture of piracy and sharing within the cassette gaming scene, and the real frustration of getting the thing to work before you could even play it informed me in a much different way than playing these games on a clean, fast emulation system. Revisiting Willy, under perspex or running on a Raspberry Pi in a gallery would mean so much more to me now, but only because I’ve had the experience of feverishly replicating the copy protection codes and waiting in suspense to see if my pirated copy would load successfully.

Gaming is a young medium, which means many of the people making choices regarding what should be preserved and how draw on their own experiences with a healthy dose of nostalgia. It’s unavoidable that one person’s canon of gaming will be different than another’s, and they’ll both be colored by personal tastes. What’s important to avoid is the presumption that everyone also has these experiences, or that they’ll take the significance of these works for granted just because they’re presented in a museum context. Activities that go beyond emulation and display can help to acknowledge and bridge these differences.

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