ZX Spectrum Games: Limitations that encouraged imagination

There are many amazing highlights in my time of owning a Sinclair ZX Spectrum in the 80s as a young boy, and so many games that captured my imagination.  I would even say that playing ZX Spectrum games helped me develop an imagination that I still use to this day for creating characters, story ideas, designing games, and just having wacky ideas in general.


That was the thing with ZX Spectrum games – you used your imagination as a peripheral cartridge add on that you plugged in to enhance your time playing the game.

Sabre Wulf, one of the famous ZX Spectrum games

The blackness of the Sabre Wulf jungle

To fill in the blackness of a black background, and replace it with a backdrop of a dense jungle on something like the excellent Sabre Wulf; you used your imagination. You had to *imagine* how the speech would sound as you listened to the clicks and the beeps of a teacher reprimanding you for “jumping like a kangaroo” on the classic Skool Daze; some times this would draw out a real life response from a young player – in their imagined character’s voice! This was a part of the game experience that you wouldn’t see today (as all of the voices, responses and full motion graphic cut scenes are there for you, on a plate!)



ZX Spectrum games were an experience

Sometimes you had to improvise when playing ZX Spectrum games. What would Miner Willy’s response be to Maria in the Master Bedroom on Jet Set Willy as she banished you with the point of a finger? There wasn’t one, so you would create one. What would his voice sound like? As a ZX Spectrum player you would have decided! 80’s gamers were not always given the full picture of what was happening on the screen, so they had to have an idea of who their character was in their minds and work with what they were presented with. A young player who was completely engrossed in a game would find themselves speaking along as their character while playing: “Why are you telling me to go away? You want me to tidy the house? You tidy the house! Oh ok I suppose I better go and tidy the house!” ..and the player would continue on with their mission; of course to tidy the Jet Set Willy mansion.


48k limit for a limitless imagination

Jet Set Willy

“Go and tidy the house!”
(probably said in a west country accent, I would imagine)

These things are really not needed these days with the processing powers, graphics, full digital audio – the jungles are life like, the characters speaking voices are fully audible with accents, expression and nuance. There is really no need with the games of today to shout out responses in the (what you would imagine as) the voice of Sergeant John “Soap” McTavish from Call of Duty, as he runs through an incredibly realistic jungle, because it’s all done and presented for you in a close to real life experience; fed to you with a movie style story-lead script.

It was the limitations of the hardware and game that forced players to use their minds. It was the use of 8 colours (with an alternative shade for each), the primitive sounds and music, all packaged up under a 48k limit that drew out the need for the player to fill in the blanks. It gave the games a unique charm and character, and pressed the programmers and artists to come up with creative ways to produce the game that they had imagined.

I think this is a good lesson for indie developers of today – don’t give the player everything – leave things open to their interpretation and allow the player to use their imagination. Learn from ZX Spectrum games; Create an experience.

Have you effectively used limitations in your games or game art to push your creativity? Let us know in the comments below….