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Thursday, 28 July 2011


The first computer I ever saw, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum was about the size of a large paperback book, jet black (save the rainbow flash of colours zipping across the bottom corner) with tiny grey rubber keys.

Invented by balding scientist Sir Clive Sinclair in 1984, the Spectrum was one of the first home computers. Plugged into the telly, you could play games in your own front room! Granted, they were all rubbish, but I wasn’t allowed in arcades, so to me, they were like stepping into TRON.

If you could go back in time to visit the eight-year-old me, and swap my Spectrum for an XBOX, it would be like giving a caveman a Cornetto. I’d love it for five minutes and then throw up, my body unable to comprehend the assault of colours, music and hard-core violence. (That is exactly what would happen if you gave a caveman a Cornetto)

For one, all the games for the Spectrum were on cassette tapes.

While this made copying your mate’s games pretty easy (all you needed was a tape-to-tape HiFi) it did mean that most Spectrum games took at least eight minutes to load. EIGHT MINUTES. Can you imagine any child today waiting eight minutes for Call of Duty to load? No, they’d be off spray-painting the library.

I found those eight minutes quite handy – you could pop downstairs for some toast and cup of tea and be back before the game had loaded. That way, you also avoided the EXCRUCIATING loading noises. Like scraping a cat’s claws down a blackboard while simultaneously putting its tail in a George Foreman grill. No one who owned a Spectrum will ever forget that noise – and it lasted EIGHT MINUTES.

(Later, when the games became more complicated, you often had to inset ANOTHER cassette tape and wait AGAIN. Even then around 75 per cent of the time, you’d just get an ERROR message and have to start over.)

However, if you were patient, you were rewarded with an embarrassment of riches.

Take the game Horace Goes Skiing for example. Check out these state of the art graphics. And the gameplay! You could move Horace left AND right!


Another staple of the Spectrum was the text based adventure game. These dispensed with graphics and moving characters completely, opting instead for descriptions of what was happening. The player would simply type instructions such as ‘go north’ to move to the next location.

But the rubbish nature of the graphics eventually forced programmers to be wildly creative with gameplay resulting in some of the cleverest, most inventive games ever made.

Sinclair brought out a 128k memory version, allowing software companies to make games like Chaos (chess with wizards), Laser Squad, (vast tactical warfare) and Elite (a never-ending space trading game). Soon, the Spectrum had become the most popular home computer in Europe. Kids at school that had the rival Commodore 64 were losers – the ‘Speccy’ was king.

Back then, you didn’t need 72 programmers, voice-artists, musicians and script-writers to make a game. Anyone could learn to code games on their own machine, meaning there was no end to the bizarre titles that came out. If a programmer had an idea, they could make a game out of it.

Want a somersaulting egg that solves puzzles? No problem, you had Dizzy – a sort of Indiana Jones with a yoke. Then there was Paperboy (you just had to deliver papers), Marble Madness (you were a marble), School Daze (you were a naughty schoolboy who had to terrorise fellow pupils without getting detention) and Jet Set Willy (not too sure what happened in that one…)

I loved my Spectrum more than it was normal to love a stupid noisy box of wires. It became more than a hobby – hunting down second hand games at car boot sales and devouring both monthly fan magazines, Sinclair User and Your Sinclair.

Even when Amiga’s, Mega Drive and Nintendo arrived, I stuck with my old Speccy. The new games dried up, but there was still a hardcore fan base still programming their own. I still remember the last ever issue of Your Sinclair – a massive double edition that paid tribute over a decade of Sir Clive’s revolutionary home computer. It was like Michael Jackson had died.

Now, the entire concept of the Spectrum is so alien to today’s youth, it’s hard to believe they even existed. But they did, and I’ve still got mine in the loft somewhere to prove it. I’ve got an XBOX now, and while the games look like Hollywood movies and you can spend hours recreating World Cup finals against 12 year-olds on the other side of the world, I’d still rather sit through eight minutes of screeching and play a two-dimensional black and white game featuring a somersaulting egg every time.

Sunday, 24 July 2011


Before X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, before even Stephen Mulhern’s Animals Do The Funniest Things, Saturday nights on ITV were ruled by one show – Gladiators.

Every Saturday evening, families across the nation would sit down with a plate of oven chips and watch the lycra-clad likes of Hunter, Falcon, Jet and Panther slug it out with members of the public at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham.

The show comprised of a series of challenges, undertaken by fitness fanatics from around the UK. So you’d have Greg, an IT consultant from Milton Keynes battling Rhino – a man actually wider than he was tall – by bouncing around on giant elastic bungee ropes, smashing each other offer pedestals with massive foam sticks or racing up climbing walls.

The best Gladiator was Wolf. Wolf was in fact a 57 year old homeless man pulled off the streets at the last minute by London Weekend Television producers, desperate for someone to play the bad guy. Wolf was a pantomime villain, all straggly hair and crazy eyes.

Supposed to be terrifying, he was by far the least frightening Gladiator, and you could see the contestants visibly draw a sigh of relief if he was their chosen opponent. Only Shadow actually looked like he might actually be taking the whole thing completely seriously and could possibly kill a contestant

The whole thing was hosted perkily by Ulrika Johnson and John ‘Fash’ Fashanu, but referee John Anderson had the catchphrase– shouting ‘Contestant, Ready! Gladiator, Ready!’ in his broad Scottish accent before blowing his whistle loudly.

The big finale was a race between the two contestants through the ominously named The Eliminator– basically a big assault course over various crash mats and monkey bars. The Eliminator ended with possibly the most tortuous device ever created – The Travelator. Essentially one of those moving walkways you get at the airport, only risen by 45 degrees and going backwards, it had the power to sap any remaining ounce of remaining energy from an already exhausted contestant. Every week, you could guarantee at least three minutes of joy, laughing as a contestant tried in vain to jog up it, their legs going nine to the dozen, but getting nowhere. If someone did manage to run up the Travelator, their reward was getting to jump spectacularly through a piece of paper and have a sweaty chat with Ulrika. There must have been some sort of prize, but I can’t remember what it was. Perhaps a sweaty chat with Ulrika was enough.

The show was incredibly popular, turning the phrase ‘pugel sticks’ a household phrase and catapulting the muscle-bound Gladiators into superstars. Kids would watch for the sub-WWF style pantomime, while the Dads could enjoy the glamorous delights of female Gladiators like Jet and Lightning. Sky1 re-made Gladiators a couple of years ago, but it’s time had passed. It’s real successor is the BBC’s Total Wipeout – essentially Gladiators without the Gladiators – and that, my friends, is what is called missing the point.

Sunday, 10 July 2011


Picture the scene. A school assembly circa 1986. One sentence is whispered across the hall.

“Megatron is dead.”


You are joking.

But how? He’s too powerful! It CAN’T be true.

But it was true. Megatron, evil leader of the Decepticons, had finally been defeated by his nemesis Optimus Prime.*

In the world of Transformers, this was like JR getting shot, Dirty Den divorcing Angie or Simon Groom leaving Blue Peter. In other words, it was MASSIVE.

Remember the boardroom scene in Big when Tom Hanks comes up with the idea of a robot that turns into a giant bug? Somewhere, sometime in the Eighties, in some Hasbro office in California, that happened for real. Some genius came up with an idea so devastatingly simple, it changed toys forever:

Kids like robots. Kids like cars. SO WHAT ABOUT A ROBOT THAT IS ALSO A CAR?

It’s probably the best idea of all time. Better than the egg cup, better than chocolate covered pretzels and much better than boring rubbish like Action Man (not a robot, couldn’t change into a car) and Star Wars figures. (Some robots, no cars).

And so in 1984 Transformers were born. Plastic cars that with a flick of the thumb would become robotic warriors from the planet Cybertron. What kid wouldn’t want to play with that? Okay, so while the vehicles looked alright, you’d usually end up with a slightly dodgy looking robot with a tyre for a head and a hubcab for an arm. That didn’t matter though. The sheer concept of a robot that was also a car was so brilliant that it was hard to believe such a thing could really exist.

But now they did exist and you could buy them for less than a tenner.

While Megatron had by far the best name of all the Transformers, he had the worst transformation. He transformed into a gun. Bear in mind that Megatron could fire lasers out of his hands when in robot form, but he still chose to bizarrely transform into a gigantic Walther P38 pistol. (In the cartoon, the gun would magically shrink so one of the other transformers (who could also shoot lasers anyway!!!) could hold it.)

So basically Megatron was completely useless, but that didn’t matter cos as well as cars and robots, kids also liked playing with toy guns.

The Autobots had leader Optimus Prime, a big red truck, and his buddy Bumblebee, a little yellow Beetle. The Decepticons had Megatron of course, and others like StarScream (a jet) and Soundwave (a cassette tape (below). YES YOU READ THAT RIGHT - A CASSETTE TAPE. He wasn’t so fun to play with as the big gun). However, showing the popularity of the show still to this day, a few years ago Hasbro reissued Soundwave in an updated Mp3 player version!

The idea was that they could wage their war in secret by disguising themselves as ‘earth vehicles’. Except they were transforming pretty much all the time into giant massive robots and beating the crap out of each other.

Once the cartoon spin-off started on telly, Transformers was all anyone ever talked about ever. It was the only TV show ever where the opening titles seemed longer than the actual cartoon itself. In it, the robots constantly shot lasers at each other for a good two minutes while a scary robot sings the theme tune. It’s like a horrible Haribo-induced nightmare and must have terrified parents across the country.

Of course now, 25 odd years later, we have the big budget live action films that have already grossed 27 billion dollars, and a new load of Transformer toys.

It just goes to prove that good ideas last.

*Don’t panic robot fans – it turned out Megatron didn’t actually die, he was merely ‘upgraded’ into the equally evil Galvatron by the all-powerful Unicorn. Phew!