King of Excellent (according to Scaryduck)

Wednesday, March 17

"Spectrum," The continuing story about a computer that went the way of the C5

Picture it, Mid 80's and a spotty teenager with a real passion for all things gaming. Programming was becoming a hot topic as well, and the Spectrum's meager performance on the graphics front meant that sound was another way to go.

The Speccy had a delightfully simple sound chip, er, device. A small piezo speaker was attached to the underside of the small plastic case, and had a crescent of holes drilled to allow the sound out. This in turn was attached directly to the processor outputs as a digital 'on/off' sound device. I say digital in the loosest sense of the word, because it was just that... on or off. The basic had a command that did the job of all sound commands combined on such a device, "BEEP." This was a delightfully easy task of choosing the note, and how long to play it so BEEP 0,1 played middle C for 1 second. That was it. I remember categorically treating my dad to a rendition of Happy Birthday in beeps at about the age of 13, and him being surprised (if not somewhat puzzled) at the fact I had spent so much time working on this *unique* gift. More needed to be done. A short bit of experimentation found that I could emulate more then one channel by playing the two notes and quickly alternating them. After much playing I had started to concoct reasonable tracks, and was getting steadily better. The problem was the data required for the sound was becoming stupendously large, and I even remember spending more then one night staying up all night playing with the bippety-blop sounds until I was happy, and going to school the next day looking like Keith Richards.

Something had to give.

Assembly Language (or machine code as it is sometimes incorrectly called) was explained thoroughly in the back of the bible that was the manual. Promises of 100 times faster code were just too tempting, and I settled into a far more reliable way of crashing it without saving any typed in program first. First to get the treatment was simple maths programs, followed by simple graphics displays and movement on the screen. All of a sudden the world was my oyster, and graphics could be made to do what I wanted. You could now no longer go and make a cup of tea in between each screen refresh on a full screen of graphics, and sprites could be made to move smoothly. As for sound, well, what can I say. The reasonable sound level could now be made to produce a square sample, although the memory was somewhat limited in allowing the sample to be stored.

A friend of mine decided he was going to let me in on his little secret of how he had been programming his own games, and copied (*ahem*) his version of Hi-soft Assembler for me. This was all manner from heaven, so that I no longer had to spend hours converting code from Mnemonic to the raw hex code and use a hex input program to type it all in. At last I could get on with more interesting things like "Sam Fox Strip Poker."

Hardware was becoming an interesting market for the spectrum user. The initial rubber keyboarded paperweight was just not on par with it's counterparts on the market. Many arguments in school with other nerds about their useless Commodore 64 or BBC Micro were quickly hosed down with the "at least my computer has a decent keyboard" retaliation. There were several third party attempts at keyboards with real keys, the best in my opinion being the £45 DK 'Tronics attempt which if I had the money and the knowledge of where to buy it I would have done so. Joysticks, whilst readily available for most computers, had nowhere to be plugged in. Sinclair themselves tried to tackle this with the Interface 2 plug-in, but by far the most popular and compatible with games was the Kempston interface. This was even on my Christmas list one year as my most wanted present along with a Quickshot 2. Even madhap joysticks were appearing with bold claims such as "No interface required!"

The humble tape drive could look forward to obscurity too, with ever advancing technology coming into the fore. Sinclair had always marketed the Spectrum with a *fast* mass storage medium called the "Microdrive." This was a 120kb loop of tape that would load in a fraction of the time, but was only favoured by sinclair, so never really took off. More storage mediums were offered, including the Opus, but I paid a visit to my local TV repair shop which had become synonymous in the area for having loads of computer stuff cheap. £10 later and I had purchased an IBM PC 720k floppy disk, and with datasheets in hand, set about making it compatible the rear edge connector. 2 drives later, and success. I could now store 15 whole games on one floppy, and even made my own (rudimentary) operating system for the disks. I was growing in confidence, and even splashed out on a secondhand Alphacom 32 printer.

I now had something bordering on a computer that could compete with a cray used by the MET office. Everyone else had Amiga's, STs or even PCs and it was only a matter of time before I defected. Summer 1993 in fact, nearly 12 years had passed, and to this day I still miss the old "R tape loading error, 0:1"